Costs of State Fair stage collapse investigation could be steep

The Indiana State Fair stage collapse will cost the state millions of dollars, not only in payouts to victims, but in fees to investigators as well.

An executive at New York engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti Inc. said this week that it would take at least six to eight months before it could determine a cause of the accident.

Fees paid to the firm and to another hired by the state to conduct an independent analysis of the state fair’s preparedness and response to the Aug. 13 collapse are  likely to top seven figures.

Strong winds toppled a state fair stage onto fans waiting to see country act Sugarland perform at the Grandstand, leading to seven deaths and dozens of injuries. Some of the injured may require care for the rest of their lives.

Spokeswomen for both Gov. Mitch Daniels and the Indiana State Fair Commission said Thursday that it’s too early to know how much the state will pay for the investigations.

But based on hourly rates stipulated in the contract, investigation fees could easily reach into the millions, on top of the maximum $5 million in damages allowed by law that the state has agreed to pay victims of the tragedy.

Thornton Tomasetti is charging the state hourly fees ranging from $290 an hour for a senior vice president assigned to the investigation to $95 an hour for administrative staff workers, according to the contract.

A senior vice president alone paid $290 an hour would receive roughly $300,000 if the investigation concludes in six months. The amount rises to $375,000 if the probe lasts eight months.

Besides a senior vice president and administrative staff workers, engineers and technicians are paid between $115 and $190 an hour, according to the contract.

Six employees of Thornton Tomasetti currently are working onsite at the fairgrounds, though more than a dozen so far have been involved in the investigation, said Scott Nacheman, a vice president of the company.

Thornton Tomasetti declined to discuss how much it might be paid for its work, because the investigation is ongoing.

"It depends on the scope of the work and how many hours and how many variables," company spokesman Jim Kent said. "There's lots of variables."

The state also hired Witt Associates, a Washington, D.C.-based public safety and crisis management firm.

Its task is to conduct the independent analysis of the state fair’s preparedness for and response to the tragedy.

Witt's fees range from $108 an hour for administrative staffers to $450 an hour for a top executive, according to the contract.

Witt spokeswoman Kim Fuller also declined to provide an estimate on how much the company might earn from the state's contract.

"It is too early to know what the cost of the review will be because we have just begun," she said via e-mail. "Know that there will be many more hours billed at the lower end of the hourly rate scale than at the high end. And while many positions have been mentioned, not all those positions may end up being needed."

The contracts with both firms do not have a dollar cap, according to state officials. The contracts run through the end of the year but could be extended.

Stephanie McFarland, a spokeswoman for the fair commission, said extensions have not been discussed yet.

More than 500 components of the stage roof have been documented, photographed and catalogued, and entered into a database to develop a “structural analysis model” that will be used to study the structure, Scott Nacheman of Thornton Tomasetti said.

As the weather turns cooler, the firm is considering tearing down the collapsed stage and relocating and reassembling it at an indoor location outside the fairgrounds.

It has remained in front of the Grandstand since the tragedy.

“We have removed equipment, instruments, some of the electronic equipment that was offstage, but nothing from under the debris pile,” Nacheman said.

Meanwhile, donations to benefit victims of the stage collapse could begin to be distributed within the next two weeks.

A State Fair Remembrance Fund now containing more than $800,000 in donations likely will be distributed before the state begins to pay out its $5 million in damages, Kenneth Feinberg said Wednesday.

Feinberg, an expert who administered victim-compensation funds following 9/11 and the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, is serving as an unpaid consultant to the state on claims associated with the concert tragedy as well as offering advice on distribution of the remembrance fund.

Feinberg said the challenge will be determining who’s eligible to receive money from the two pools of funds.

“There’s a limited amount of money here,” Feinberg said. “How much will go to death claims and injury claims? We will have a final answer to those questions in a matter of weeks.”

Accepting a settlement offer is optional. Victims instead could decline an offer and pursue litigation in court. But reaching a settlement with the state would provide certainty of compensation and early resolution, while minimizing the costs of a lengthy lawsuit, Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller said in a press release.


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