HETRICK: Symphony's weather policy is 'When in doubt, get them out'

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Bruce Hetrick

On Aug. 13, my wife, Cherí, and I went to Symphony on the Prairie. We were supposed to have dinner and hear the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, along with a group of Beatles impersonators, in a pops concert featuring Fab Four music.

Shortly after 8 p.m., our dinner hosts announced that a storm might be headed our way. They said “The Beatles” were going to sing a few songs, but without the orchestra. Symphony officials then would decide whether the show would go on.

Cherí and I walked toward the stage to have a close look at “John,” “Paul, “George” and “Ringo”—or as close as one gets these days.

After a few hits from the 1960s, the symphony’s announcer got on the public address system. He said the storm was several towns away. He said officials weren’t yet sure whether they’d continue the concert after it passed. He said everyone should go to their cars immediately. He said we should tune to WFYI-FM 90.1 for further information.

Folks packed up and headed for the parking lot. By the time black clouds rolled in and the wind picked up, most of the cars, including ours, were headed toward the exits.

When we got home, I peeked at my Twitter account. I found messages about a concert stage collapsing before a concert by the country band Sugarland at the Indiana State Fair. I turned on the TV.

For hours that night and into last week, we watched footage of the stage rigging collapsing, concert-goers screaming, fans and emergency personnel rushing to help, volunteer nurses and doctors treating victims, ambulances racing to Methodist and Wishard hospitals, announcements that some people had been killed and many others injured, and officials struggling to explain what had happened and how they felt.

And, yes, there were stories saying that, instead of evacuating everyone, the announcer at the Sugarland concert had merely said where to go if the weather got worse.

It did. Much sooner than expected. And before fair officials ordered the crowd out of harm’s way.

On Aug. 13, when the victims’ names were announced, I searched the Web hoping to learn more about them. I started with Alina BigJohny, because she grew up where I did (in Fort Wayne), and because she was 23, the same as my twin sons.

Online, I found an autobiographical essay Alina wrote as a student at Manchester College. It tells the story of her growing up, some freak accidents and broken bones she suffered as a kid, her struggles with her parents’ divorce, a senior prank that marred her otherwise sterling high-school career, and her dream of becoming a teacher.

Alina’s essay is funny, heartfelt and full of hope. It left me contemplating, once again, the randomness and fragility of life.

What if an evacuation announcement had come two minutes earlier?

What if Alina had been standing two feet to the right or left?

What if a traffic jam on Interstate 69 had made her two minutes late or put her two rows further back in the “sugar pit”?

What if the rigging engineers had specified two small changes in the stage design?

What if the wind had gusted two miles further east?

What if?

Despite freak occurrences, despite the power of nature, despite the fact that bad things happen to good people, we dig for reasons why.

Hindsight, of course, is 20/20. It can be employed for two reasons: to find fault and assign blame; or to learn from tragedy, improve procedures and lessen the likelihood that anything similar will happen again.

Thus, while many of us (Gov. Mitch Daniels included) have been moved to tears by the lives lost and the heroic response at the scene, we’ve also witnessed the inevitable stories about who did and didn’t do what, who should’ve done what, who’s to blame, and who might get sued and who might have to pay.

Were these victims my friends or family, however, my greatest interest would be legacy. I’d want my loved one’s life to take on additional meaning by seeing that the lessons learned from this tragedy result in changes that save the lives of others.

I sent a thank you note to some friends who work at the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. I thanked them for erring on the side of caution. I thanked them for the early warning. I thanked them for evacuating us early.

One of my friends wrote back to say the symphony’s policy for 30 years has been, “When in doubt, get them out.”

Then she gave me the greatest gift of all. She said that while they’d been fortunate this time, “We all learn valuable lessons in crisis—and we are not resting on our laurels. We still are modifying evacuation procedures as we speak.”

Or, as The Beatles once said, “Take a sad song and make it better.”•


Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.


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