Published on August 23, 2021.

Concert Collapse

Ten years later: The Indiana State Fair stage disaster


On the evening of August 13, 2011, around 12,000 people gathered for an outdoor concert at the Indiana State Fairgrounds & Event Center in Indianapolis. The opening act had wrapped up, and fans waited for the headliner, the country duo Sugarland, scheduled to go on at 8:45 p.m.

As they waited, the sky in the west grew increasingly dark and ominous, and the National Weather Service warned of an incoming storm. According to media reports, at around 8:30 p.m, an off-duty state police captain named Brad Weaver talked to Cindy Hoye, executive director of the Indiana State Fair Commission, and urged her to delay or cancel the show in light of the incoming weather. Hoye seemed to agree. At 8:39 p.m, the National Weather Service issued a new severe thunderstorm warning for the area, with winds over 60 mph. The fair had communication systems in place to receive these warnings, but the state fair and concert officials reportedly did not receive this one. Shortly after he spoke with Hoye, Weaver was surprised to hear the event announcer tell the audience that Sugarland would go on at 8:50 p.m. At 8:46 p.m, Weaver repeated his concern to Hoye that they needed to get people out of there. An evacuation order was never issued. Three minutes later, a powerful gust of wind hit the stage.

A temporary ground-supported metal structure had been erected to cover the stage area and hold audio and lighting equipment. The gust ripped the structure’s large tarp roof from its frame, and a moment later the supports buckled and collapsed, sending the structure crashing onto the people below. Many were trapped under the collapsed rigging and other equipment. Others rushed to tend to the injured and attempted to lift the heavy scaffolding off people who were trapped. The collapse killed seven people and injured 58 others.

In the aftermath, questions arose over who had final authority to delay or cancel the show. Besides Weaver, media accounts of the incident indicated that Hoye had also spoken to Sugarland’s manager, who wanted the band to go on despite the threatening weather and advocated for just a five-minute delay—the plan that was ultimately enacted, with the provision that the band would stop if the weather worsened.

According to media reports, the Indiana State Fair Commission hired the engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti to lead an investigation into why the stage rigging collapsed. It also hired emergency planning advisors Witt Associates to investigate the fair’s emergency plans and response. Thornton Tomasetti reported that the stage rigging did not meet industry safety standards, and Witt Associates determined that an “ambiguity of authority” around who was in charge of public safety—along with inadequate overall preparedness and emergency response plans—contributed to the disaster.

The fair commission voted to implement the recommendations outlined in the reports and hired a chief operations officer to oversee the process. Despite the failings outlined in the reports and her own repeated offers to resign, Hoye was kept on as head of the state fair commission.

CAITLIN WALKER is a digital asset librarian at NFPA. Top photograph: Newscom