The recent stage collapse at the Indiana State Fairgrounds on east 38th Street resulted in 5 fatalities and more than 140 injured. Innocent people on a summer evening at the right place, anticipating a concert, at the wrong time, a wind micro-shear of 70+ mph, and a catastrophic end. Injury lawyers, motivated by contingency fees, will spread the blame from Sugarland to Graceland, but the tragedy cannot be erased.
A disadvantage to advancing age, there are events you never forget.
Turning the clock back, 48 years, Halloween night 1963, a similar event occurred less than 200 yards away in the Coliseum, on a frozen rink, the opening evening for Holiday on Ice, an extravaganza of figure skaters, costumes, and music. The program had nearly concluded, the lights were off, and the performers were taking their places for the final curtain, and then this:
The pharmaceutical giant, Eli Lilly, had provided dinner and the entertainment for our senior class, only eleven strong, plus two faculty members and our aged pharmacy school librarian as guests. With a guard rail, a walkway and a single row forward, the blast from a leaking propane tank hurtled everything and everyone seated directly in front of us upward and outward. The final toll, > 70 people died and 400 were injured, including several of the performers who were showered with concrete.
Our group was seated to the right of picture, one row back from the railing
In the aftermath, the city (then under 500,000 pop.) did not have the capability of processing that many deaths and injuries, so the ice rink was used as a temporary morgue.
Indianapolis Star photo, November 1, 1963 from the opposite side. The gaping hole is directly in front of the large crane.
So what did I remember from 48 years ago:
- with the electricity out, an eerie glow from burning propane and ignited debris casting long shadows across the ice littered with broken bodies
- the aroma of cotton candy
- the inability to move from my seat for nearly five minutes, an eternity, in awe of the gaping hole beneath my feet
- the amount of broken glass everywhere. You never realize how much glass is around you, until every window pane in a quarter mile has been blown into tiny shards.
- carrying a young man of six into a bus filled with the wounded, with his injured father limping behind, and heading to Methodist with a police escort
- The calm orchestration of chaos by the nurses and medical staff
- learning that my initial paralysis was neither fear nor loathing, but simply ‘shock’
In the end, the boy’s injury was minor, but his father had lost most of a calf muscle and required surgery & several transfusions. Three of us gave blood that night. Our entire group escaped unscathed with the exception of the librarian, a large, yet feeble lady, who tripped, fell, and was trampled in the panic that ensued as people rushed for the exits. As I recall she had a broken ankle, and many superficial cuts, but healed quickly.
Unlike a Greek tragedy, the art form based on human suffering that gives the audience pleasure, the stage collapse last week opened a nearly forgotten wound, but one that will never go away.
Stark recognition of the frailty of the human condition and how little we are in control: my two pals, Larry Larson and Jerry Copenhaver (both long since passed away) and, yes, myself complaining that Lilly was too cheap to get us seats in the front rows.