Summer Music Festivals: Four tragic stage collapses lead to deaths and injuries

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Music festivals are a staple of the summer season, and since the inception of Lollapalooza in 1991, outdoor concerts and worldwide attendance at festival shows have increased dramatically. 2011 has been a strong year for these shows, in terms of attendance, but events in the past two months are leaving many promoters, managers, fans, and artists ill at ease — and in mourning.

In a span of just 33 days, four outdoor festival stages have been brought to the ground by severe weather, two of them occurring while bands were performing. All four have commonalities, including unexpected, violent storms that caught promoters and attendees by surprise. In two of the four collapses, reports of other tents and structures remaining intact were a common theme, as are first-hand descriptions of how quickly the weather turned and the panic that ensued.

In all, 12 people have died and hundreds injured. While severe weather undoubtedly played the catastrophic role in all four events, questions are being raised regarding the standards and inspections required in the construction of these temporary, multi-ton, extremely complex stage structures. Others are suggesting that rigs are wearing after decades of use, and there have been some allegations of negligence.

Preventable or not, the fact is this summer’s festival celebrations have been marred by tragedy. What makes it more unsettling is these incidents were not isolated to one tour or one show, but span three countries and four separate events.

July 17, 2011
Stage collapses as Cheap Trick plays the Bluesfest in Ottawa, ON (Canada)

The Ottawa Bluesfest began in 1994, and the 2011 event featured 13 days of concerts, with hundreds of acts performing on five stages. On the last day of the festival, Cheap Trick was performing on the MBNA Stage when the stage was toppled by explosive winds.

No one was killed in the stage collapse, mostly due to the fact that most of the rigging landed on a truck. One member of Cheap Trick’s road crew was injured, though a post on the band’s site from July 19th indicated that Sandy (their truck driver) had been released from the hospital.

There is speculation that the stage may have been compromised a week earlier at the Bluesfest, in an incident where concerns over a flapping wind panel caused the Black Keys’ management to pull them off the stage prior to their performance on July 8th.

Cheap Trick’s management seems to be wondering whether the incident could have been avoided, evidenced from this excerpt from a statement on their website: "While weather likely contributed to the incident, the multi-ton stage roof that fell on everyone on the stage must be properly explained, especially when nearby tents and other temporary structures stood untouched."

In related news, Cheap Trick has canceled a show in Vancouver scheduled for September 1st. The staging was going to be provided by the same company (Mega-Stage) that provided the MBNA Stage at the Bluesfest.

See a news clip of the collapse.

August 6, 2011
Stage collapses at Brady District Block Party — Tulsa, Oklahoma

The one-day Brady District Block Party was to feature nine musical acts, concluding with Primus and The Flaming Lips. The first seven acts had performed when the 100°-plus day turned torrential. Rain began to fall, and within minutes, the wind had picked up and blew some of the festival tents over. Then a light rig on the stage came loose.

Soon after 6 pm, the Tulsa Fire Department was on the scene, the festival cancelled, and concert-goers were being moved to safety. Then, amid the downpour and sustained winds, the lighting rig fell, and according to one tech’s estimate, $800,000 worth of the Flaming Lips’ gear was destroyed.

The good news is that this collapse was less sudden than the others this summer, and festival organizers had time to clear the area and get attendees to safety.

See a video of the collapse.

August 13, 2011
Massive stage collapse at the Indiana State Fair

One of the two fatal festival catastrophes occurred at the Indiana State Fair. In the minutes leading up to a performance by country music duo Sugarland, wild and heavy gusts of wind preceding a thunderstorm hit before authorities could take action. The stage plummeted in seconds, landing on the first few rows of attendees. There were over 12,000 fans in attendance.

According to the timelines, fair officials were aware of the approaching storm and were preparing for an evacuation, having been alerted that a severe thunderstorm was expected to reach the grounds by 9:15 pm. An announcement had been made to the crowd earlier that an evacuation might be necessary, and by 8:30 pm, additional state troopers had arrived to assist with the evacuation.

Then at 8:49 pm, possibly intensified by a chute of buildings that led up a dirt track to the stage, a lethal burst of wind rocked the enormous structure, which collapsed in a heap in seconds. A total of seven people have died as a result of the collapse, with dozens more injured, many seriously.

Though there doesn’t seem to be evidence or public outcry regarding mishandling or neglect in this case, a judge has ordered that the wreckage be preserved so that a full investigation can be mounted.

The fair closed on Sunday, following the tragedy Saturday night, and reopened the following Monday with a memorial service, led by Indiana’s Governor Mitch Daniels.

"My heart is full for those people who acted in courageous ways to make sure that Saturday night was not worse than it was," said Daniels. "All day yesterday, I talked to state troopers, firemen, and emergency personnel, and every one of them had a story about that stranger who was to their left and their right helping them extricate the injured, lift the scaffolding, completely disregarding their own safety. There was a hero every 10 feet on Saturday night."

Here’s a video of the Indiana collapse. Be aware, it’s pretty terrifying and not suitable for everyone.

August 18, 2011
Stage collapse ends Pukkelpop Music Festival in Belgium

Started in 1985, Pukkelpop is an annual music festival which takes place near the city of Hasselt, Belgium. This year’s event was scheduled for August 18-20 and featured eight stages hosting a roster of performers that included Eminem, the Foo Fighters, Fleet Foxes, and Blonde Redhead.

On the opening day of this year’s show, less than a week after the Indiana State Fair collapse, a sudden and unpredicted storm ravaged the festival site and toppled a stage while Chicago’s Smith Westerns were playing. The band narrowly escaped injury, with lighting trusses falling just feet from where they were standing as they were being called from the stage.

Five people died and over 140 were injured as a result of the collapse and the storm, which uprooted trees and rained hail the size of ping pong balls. Pukkelpop attracts 60,000 daily attendees, with thousands camping nearby. Those camped this year were mired in flooded grounds Friday night and spent the next day battling massive traffic jams.

Pukkelpop was canceled after the incident, putting a grim end to one of Europe’s largest rock festivals, and adding a dour chapter to the story of 2011 music festivals.

See a video of the news report.

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