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Indiana hires outside firm to review state fair disaster

August 18, 2011

Indiana has hired an outside firm to help with its investigation into a fatal stage collapse at the state fair after questions were raised about the state's ability to conduct an objective probe itself.

Gov. Mitch Daniels' office announced late Thursday afternoon that the state had hired Witt Associates, a public safety and crisis management firm based in Washington, D.C., to conduct a "comprehensive, independent analysis of the state fair's preparedness and response" to the collapse that killed five people and injured four dozen as they waited for a concert by country act Sugarland.

The company will assess the "adequacy of state fair procedures and the effectiveness of decision-making," as well as the response to the accident, according to a statement from Daniels' office. The report will be sent to Daniels and the Indiana State Fair Commission.

"We believe we have the best people in America looking at every angle of the accident," Andre Lacy, chairman of the fair commission, said in a statement.

The announcement follows questions about the state's ability to essentially police itself as it investigates the collapse and whether fair officials should have evacuated the grandstand because of approaching severe weather.

Workplace safety agencies, state police and fair officials already were looking into Saturday's collapse, but all were under the jurisdiction of the state, which also put on the fair. The lone outside agency brought in until Thursday was an engineering firm hired by the Indiana State Fair Commission.

Other states in similar positions have formed special commissions with outside experts to handle investigations, including one into a bonfire collapse at Texas A&M University and the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado.

Daniels had pledged a thorough review of the collapse but has repeatedly referred to the wind gust that toppled the stage but spared other nearby structures as a freak occurrence that couldn't have been anticipated.

Jerry Miniard, an Erlanger, Ky., attorney who is representing the family of injured 10-year-old Jade Walcott, whose skull was crushed by the falling stage, said the hiring of Witt Associates was a "a good first step," but Daniels also should order the stage and components preserved for independent investigations by the victims and the family members of those who died.

"The fair has an interest in protecting itself," Miniard said . "Why in the world would you let someone who may be responsible investigate themselves?"

Witt Associates is led by James Lee Witt, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency under President Bill Clinton from 1993 to 2001. The company performed an independent review of a Chicago skyscraper fire in 2003 that killed six people and advised Louisiana about its response to Hurricane Katrina.

The decision to seek outside help could help assure the public that the investigation is as thorough as Daniels has pledged.

"There's this sort of automatic default to say, we have people here internally who can take a look at this ... but for something so closely affiliated with the state, it would be wise to call upon someone who doesn't have any even perceived conflict of interest," said Judy Nadler, a former mayor of Santa Clara, Calif., who is a senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.

"I think it really is such a significant event ... it requires a level of independence to fully discern the facts and to fully convey to the public that this was a fair and thorough and impartial and nonpolitical look at what happened," she said.

State fair officials have also hired New York engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti Inc. to review the stage's design and construction. Daniels said he also has requested that the state's Inspector General assign investigators to the State Fair Commission to help with fact-finding and documentation.

Fair spokesman Andy Klotz said the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration and other agencies conducting their own investigations will all report to the fair commission. "I am quite sure that everybody is going to be satisfied with the thoroughness of this investigation," he said. "And nobody wants the answers more than us."

Attention also has centered on how fair officials reacted to worsening weather conditions, telling the audience minutes before a 60 to 70 mph wind gust brought the stage down onto the crowd that the show would likely go on — without mentioning that the National Weather Service had issued a severe thunderstorm warning. But it isn't clear which, if any, agency was investigating that aspect of the crisis.

"I don't know who that falls under, but absolutely, that's going to be part of it," Klotz said.

Daniels' decision mirrors what other states have done in times where crisis management was key.

After a 1999 bonfire collapse that killed 12 people at Texas A&M University, school officials appointed a five-person commission whose members had no direct ties to the university to investigate the tragedy. The University of Notre Dame conducted its own investigation into the death of a student killed last year when the hydraulic lift he was on fell over in high winds as he filmed football practice. But it hired Peter Likins, an engineer and the former president of the University of Arizona, to provide an independent review of its investigation.

Others have gone even further. After an explosion killed 29 men last year in the Upper Big Branch mine near Montcoal, W.Va., the state's governor asked a former top federal mine regulator to investigate the accident. And Colorado's governor appointed an independent commission to investigate the 1999 Columbine High School shootings.

Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said there was ultimately no way to avoid outside investigations of an accident like the state fair stage collapse because there were bound to be lawsuits by victims and their families.

"In a sense, the lawsuit is the outside investigation," Stern said.

Miniard sent a letter asking Daniels to issue an executive order securing the stage for other investigations, though he said it was too early to gauge the likelihood of a lawsuit. The attorney said an aide to the governor, Doug Huntsinger, called him to say the state would make the site "available to any engineer we wanted to retain and to any expert who wanted to view the site."

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