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Company: Sugarland resisted delaying state fair concert

February 8, 2012

Country duo Sugarland resisted delaying the start of a concert last August at the Indiana State Fair despite threatening weather that later caused a deadly stage collapse, the fair's top official testified in a lawsuit against the company that built the stage rigging.

During a Jan. 16 deposition, Indiana State Fair Commission executive director Cindy Hoye testified that a representative for a concert promotion company working with the fair twice approached Sugarland about the fair's desire to delay the show. But Hoye said the band expressed concerns about how a delay would affect the time lead singer Jennifer Nettles needed to warm up and complicate the band's travel to its next show.

"They were trying to get to Iowa to play the Iowa State Fair, and so they said they did not want to delay," Hoye testified as part of a lawsuit filed against Mid-America Sound Corp., which built the roof and rigging used to hold the lights and sound equipment used in the Aug. 13 concert.

The company released a portion of Hoye's deposition Wednesday after the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined Mid-America $63,000 for three serious violations of industry standards, which it said contributed to the stage collapse that killed seven people and injured 58 others.

The six-month investigation found the company, the stagehands union and fair officials share blame for the collapse, which occurred when a powerful storm swept into the fairgrounds and knocked over the outdoor stage rigging just before Sugarland was to perform.

Hoye said that the fair offered to pay for extra stagehands in Des Moines to reduce the time needed to set up the stage, but the band declined.

Myra Borshoff Cook, a spokeswoman for Mid-America, said the company released Hoye's comments because "we thought it was important for people to see the bigger picture."

Representatives for Sugarland did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press. Stephanie McFarland, a spokeswoman for the fair, also had no immediate response.

State Labor Commissioner Lori Torres said OSHA's report, the first of three independent investigations into the tragedy, was intended to improve workplace safety, not assign blame. However, it issued small fines against the fair, company and union.

The report said Mid-America failed to adequately address safety standards. It found fair officials didn't sufficiently plan for emergencies and were too slow to order an evacuation of the grounds when powerful winds blew in ahead of a storm.

The report also said the union hadn't adequately trained members how to work at heights or provided them with fall protection.

None of that, however, could have necessarily prevented the collapse, Torres said.

"The state fair commission believed they had more time than they actually had based on weather conditions," Torres said. "This is not the same as saying that even if it had developed the proper protocol no one would have been injured. But clearly an earlier evacuation ... would have changed things."

OSHA fined the Indiana State Fair Commission $6,300 for failing to conduct proper safety evaluations of its concert venues.

The company said it told the fair commission and Sugarland about the temporary roof's limitations in severe weather, advising that the area be evacuated in the event of lightning or winds topping 40 mph. Those warnings were reiterated the night of the concert, the statement said.

Despite that, they "refused to postpone the concert and failed to implement an evacuation plan away from the temporary roof structure," the statement said.

Torres agreed that fair officials lacked an adequate evacuation plan and that the decision to evacuate the grandstand was ultimately up to Hoye, the executive director. She didn't respond to a call from The Associated Press seeking comment.

The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 30 also came under fire, accused of five workplace violations.

The report found that the union, not the commission, was the employer of the stagehands who were working Aug. 13 when the stage collapsed. But union attorney Bill Groth called that "absurd."

"Needless to say, Local 30 feels it is being scapegoated by this administration, whose agents' own gross negligence in failing to vacate the premises in the face of the imminent storm cannot be explained away," Groth said in an email to The Associated Press.

Torres said the agency determined the union was the stagehands' employer because it selected the workers for the job and filed W-2s, workers compensation and other documents, among other factors. The union was fined $11,500.

Sugarland was not penalized, though the band has been named in some lawsuits over the accident. The agency said the band didn't employ the workers and wasn't responsible for building the stage.

Jeff Carter, IOSHA's deputy commissioner, said the union had indicated it would contest the findings and state fair officials had requested a meeting with OSHA officials. Mid-America had not responded, he said.

Torres noted that state inspections of temporary structures such as the stage rigging weren't required at the time of the collapse but that a bill to require such inspections is pending in the Legislature.

Officials said the OSHA probe was prompted largely by the deaths of stagehand Nathan Byrd, who fell when the roof collapsed, and security guard Glenn Goodrich, who was working nearby.

State officials have also hired two out-of-state companies to review the stage collapse and the state's emergency response to the disaster. International engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti is conducting an investigation of the rigging collapse and national emergency planning advisers Witt Associates are reviewing the state's emergency plans and its response to the collapse.

Fair commission Chairman Andre Lacy said in a statement that those investigations will "give us the information we need to develop a comprehensive plan to take us forward."

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