State fair exec shadowed by tragedy

Cindy Hoye's life has revolved around fairs since she was a child growing up just 10 minutes from the Indiana State Fairgrounds, but for the past year, that lifelong love has been tainted by tragedy.

Now, the executive director of the Indiana State Fair Commission says she is trying to help the fair move beyond the shadow of last summer's catastrophic stage collapse, which killed seven people and injured dozens of others when high winds toppled the stage rigging as a thunderstorm approached.

Part of that shadow falls firmly across Hoye, who critics claim should have acted more quickly that August night to evacuate the thousands of fans swarming the temporary stage and the grandstand as they waited for country duo Sugarland to perform.

Hoye, who has spent 25 years at the fair including the last eight as director, won't talk about the decisions made that night, which form the nexus of lawsuits by survivors and victims' families. But she said the disaster haunts fair officials as they work to prevent it from happening again.

"You have to understand that this team out here has been devastated," Hoye told The Associated Press this week in her first interview since the collapse. "We don't take any of that lightly, that there have been people who have lost their lives, people who are forever impacted. There is not a moment that goes by in our planning that we don't think about what happened."

Reports released after months of investigation faulted the fair's safety protocols and said there was confusion over who was in charge when the collapse occurred on Aug. 13, 2011. Determining who was responsible for the decision not to delay the concert could be a key factor in the outcome of the lawsuits.

During a Jan. 16 deposition, Hoye testified that a representative for a concert promotion company working with the fair asked Sugarland to delay the show as bad weather approached but said the band expressed concerns over warm-up time and travel to its next show.

Sugarland lead singer Jennifer Nettles said in a video testimony earlier this year that she thought it was the duty of fair officials to delay the show. Allan Mayer, a spokesman for the duo, said that Nettles and fellow group member Kristian Bush were never asked for a delay.

A report by emergency planning advisers Witt Associates found that Hoye agreed to cancel the show at the urging of state police Capt. Brad Weaver about 20 minutes later, but the stage collapsed before they could order an evacuation.

Hoye narrowly missed being caught in the collapse and has credited Weaver with saving her life.

The lawsuits filed also target the company that built the stage and Sugarland. But as the public face of the fair, Hoye has drawn sharp scrutiny. The Witt Associates investigation faulted not only the confusion over who was in charge, but found lapses in communication about weather conditions. It also said fair officials, who had gone through an emergency exercise with an eerily similar scenario a month before the collapse, didn't utilize the plans they did have in place the night of the collapse.

State Fair Commission Chairman Andre Lacy said in April that Hoye had offered her resignation but was unanimously overruled.

But there have been changes to her job. Hoye relinquished day-to-day management and the authority to call off shows to the fair's new chief operating officer or, in his absence, a new fair safety director. Hoye's role has become more one of oversight and long-term strategy.

Hoye said she understands the criticism and wants to do whatever's necessary to help the fair move forward. New safety initiatives, including clearer policies, emergency training for all fair staff and the hiring of a company to monitor the weather daily, are in place. The Legislature passed new regulations requiring regular inspections for temporary outdoor structures, which the state hadn't previously required. And no future concerts will be held outdoors.

"I think they have been monumental steps," she said.

The fair has erected a memorial plaque to those killed outside the grandstand where the collapse occurred. It also plans to honor them with a moment of silence on Aug. 13 at 8:46 p.m., the one-year anniversary of the collapse. Amusement rides, games and concession stands will come to a halt.

"We thought it was very important to honor the victims, honor the families, pay our respects," Hoye said. "What we wanted to do was literally shut down the fairground and pay tribute to the fact that those victims are never far from our hearts."

Hoye said she hasn't spoken to the victims or their families for legal reasons but has followed the stories of survivors including Andrea Vellinga, a young mother from Pendleton, Ind., who suffered severe head trauma and has spent months in rehabilitation, and Brad Humphrey, a standout Indianapolis high school tennis player left paralyzed by a spine injury.

She hopes the fair that opens Aug. 3 brings about some healing for all affected by last year's collapse.

"I will continue as hard as I possibly can … to move this team forward … to show those families who lost loved ones that we think about them every single day," she said.

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