A Tragedy Strikes

crewwcall2We interrupt our regularly scheduled coverage for this special bulletin.
This month I was going to continue our discussion of the arrogance that can be present among manufacturer personnel, and how to avoid it. We’ll continue next issue, and for all those of you who have emailed me about it with their comments, thank you.

But right now, I’m swamped with email over the disaster in Indianapolis. Accidents in our industry DO happen, and, unfortunately, occasionally claim a life. It is rare though that they happen in such an extremely public and unusual fashion, and that they claim the lives of audience members. Usually, when a disaster occurs, it’s during setup or strike, thankfully when the house is empty.  Besides getting all the cues right, it is one of the reasons we have rehearsals – to make sure that all the systems are stable and installed properly.

By now, most of you have seen the video of the stage collapsing, and, like me, have studied it like the Zapruder film and felt that cold chill of realizing that we could one day be involved in some way in such a tragedy. Some of us will be remembering how close we have come at times, and thank our lucky stars and the people we have worked with who prevented it. I know I am.

Most of the email has revolved around who could be at fault, and my only real answer is… both everyone and no one.

First, let’s talk for a moment about the nature of such large outdoor events, and I speak only generically here, not about the specific incident in Indiana. Normally, in such a large festival event, there are many, many cooks handling the “soup.” In many, stage construction, lighting, audio and AV, and the portions of the rigging that come with them, can come from entirely separate companies. I sometimes marvel at such events, where people who have never worked together before can show up with only what fits in trucks and construct such a large rig in the time constraints involved. We get around many, many rules that would be involved in construction safety due to the temporary nature of the construction, no matter how large.

But all of us, hopefully, have the same attitude toward rigging and rigging safety. It CAN (and HAS) kill people, no matter who does it. It’s the reason that the best people I know in the industry maintain some rigging safety paranoia, no matter how long they have been doing it.

Now let’s talk about the nature of stage rigging. Truss is tough stuff, treated right, and many of you have emailed wondering if because of that, it had to be rigging mistakes that brought down that stage.

Not at all.

Truss IS very strong, but nowhere near what would be done for a permanent building. It is designed to be lightweight and portable, and we give up certain aspects of strength so that we don’t have to weld steel i-beams instead. Truss is scientifically designed to bear high loads, but only in certain directions. That is the magic of rigging, carefully calculating weights and balance to bear weight along the strong directions in the truss, and not to bear too much weight on the weak points — the unions of the truss, where it is bolted together. A surprisingly small amount of unbalanced weight, applied in an unexpected direction, can tear a rig apart.

Which, from only the viewing of the videotapes, is what happened. If you watch the collapse of the stage, painful though it is, it collapsed from its basically cubic form diagonally as it buckled. The sudden incredible gust of wind seemed to come from backstage right, with the closed back, sides and roof covering providing the giant sails for a huge gust of wind that came from a really, really bad direction, allowing it to push on the corners of the cube and break the unions of the truss.

Lots of things could be done to prevent such an accident. For instance, a lot less canvas, or canvas with more apertures, would have allowed the wind to pass through rather than taking the stage down. Maybe. It’s all second-guessing now. But that kind of freak accident with wind is something that could happen anywhere, and, ultimately, there’s only one real safety measure. The event should have been called off the moment that such severe weather was anticipated. Much better to err on the side of safety than to ever have to watch that stage fall, over and over again, in your dreams.

My heart, and I’m sure those of all of us who are involved in the business, go out to all those involved in Indiana. Not only to the victims, but to all those involved in the event and the crew.

rAVe Rental [and Staging] contributor Joel R. Rollins, CTS-R, is General Manager of Everett Hall Associates, Inc. and is well known throughout the professional AV industry for his contributions to industry training and his extensive background in AV rental, staging and installation. Joel can be reached at joelrollins@mac.com