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Indiana fair remembers stage collapse 1 year later

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The Indiana State Fair came to a standstill Monday night to honor the victims of a deadly stage collapse one year ago that prompted sweeping overhauls of the fair's emergency plan and new regulations for temporary stages.

The fair shut down all activities from 8:46 p.m. to 8:50 p.m. to commemorate the seven people killed and dozens injured Aug. 13, 2011, when strong winds sent stage rigging crashing onto a crowd of fans awaiting a concert by country duo Sugarland.

"Today's my alive day," said Crystalyn Huegen, 37, who was injured when the rigging toppled. She said wanted to attend the event for "closure" and spent hours earlier in the day at the fairgrounds handing out flowers and talking to others who were also at the concert.

Amusement rides and shuttle buses stopped at 8:30 p.m., and concessions turned off all music as about 300 people gathered at a memorial to the victims outside the grandstand. Fair goers were asked to pause and remove their hats for a moment of silence, and the names of the seven people killed were read over a loud speaker.

Jaymie Polet, whose close friend died after suffering a head injury during the collapse, leaned on her crutches, acknowledging the moment of silence was a difficult reminder of what had happened. The 18-year-old was injured in the collapse and underwent surgery last week to have a rod removed from her leg.

"I lost someone that I really did love," she said, referring to Meagan Toothman, a high school cheerleading coach who Polet said was like a sister.

Joined by her mother and sister, Polet laid a wreath along with a collage of photos and written messages at the base of the memorial, which was adorned with flowers.

The others who died were Alina BigJohny, Nathan Byrd, Glenn Goodrich, Jennifer Haskell, Christina Santiago and Tammy VanDam.

"It's rough. You don't know why who made it through and who didn't," said Huegen, who said a woman she was standing next to before last year's concert was among those killed.

The collapse spurred key changes at the fair after two investigations found that the stage rigging wasn't strong enough to meet state building codes and that the fair lacked a fully developed emergency plan.

The Indiana State Fair Commission in May hired venue manager David Shaw as chief operating officer to handle day-to-day operations and Jessie Olvera as director of safety and security. A month later, it unanimously approved a 425-page emergency management plan that adopted recommendations made by consultant Witt Associates and formalizing procedures that already were in place but not used the night that the grandstand collapsed.

The new plan gave Shaw the responsibility for postponing or canceling events amid threatening conditions or, in his absence, Olvera.

State lawmakers also approved a measure requiring inspections of temporary stages at the site until 2014. They plan to meet next month to study permanent regulations.

Indiana has already paid $5 million to victims of the collapse and has added $6 million to a proposed $7.2 million settlement from stage owner Mid-America Sound Corp. and James Thomas Engineering. That payment, which requires victims to agree not to sue, is pending approval from the two companies.

Lawsuits over the collapse are pending in Indianapolis. A judge has ordered all sides to enter mediation in hopes of reaching a settlement by the end of 2013.

Monday's observance came a day after five people, including the fair queen, suffered minor injuries when a stagecoach overturned during a performance ahead of a hitch competition in the Pepsi Coliseum. Fair officials evacuated the arena and delayed the competition.

Though the stagecoach incident was a stark reminder of how quickly a fun event can turn dangerous, visitors who stopped by the memorial to the stage collapse victims Monday said they thought the fair was safer now.

"Any (safety) measure they put in place is better than what they had last year," said Kelly Hart, 45, of Indianapolis.

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