Illinois Public Media News
The summer evening at the Indiana State Fair turned strangely cold. The wind blew hard, then harder still, tearing the fabric from the roof of the wobbling grandstand stage.
The crowd, waiting under a thunderous sky for the country duo Sugarland to perform Saturday, had just been told over the loudspeakers that severe weather was possible. They were told where to seek shelter if an evacuation was necessary, but none was ordered. The show, it seemed, was to go on.
None of the phone calls workers had made to the National Weather Service prepared them for the 60 to 70 mph gust that blew a punishing cloud of dirt, dust and rain down the fairground's main thoroughfare. The massive rigging and lighting system covering the stage tilted forward, then plummeted onto the front of the crowd in a sickening thump.
Five people were killed, four of them at the scene, where dozens ran forward to help the injured while others ran for shelter out of fear that the devastation had only begun. Dozens of people - including several children - remained hospitalized Sunday, some with life-threatening injuries.
"Women were crying. Children were crying. Men were crying," fairgoer Mike Zent said.
The fair canceled all activities Sunday as officials began the long process of determining what happened and fielded difficult questions about whether the tragedy could have been prevented.
"We're all very much in mourning," Cindy Hoye, the fair's executive director, said during a news conference Sunday. "It's a very sad day at the state fair."
Gov. Mitch Daniels called the accident an "unthinkable tragedy" and said the wind burst was a "fluke" that no one could have foreseen. Dan McCarthy, chief meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Indiana, said the burst of wind was far stronger than gusts in other areas of the fairgrounds.
The seemingly capricious nature of the gust was evident Sunday at the fair, where crews placed a blue drape around the grandstand to block the view of the wreckage. A striped tent nearby appeared unscathed, as did an aluminum trailer about 50 yards away. The Ferris wheel on the midway also escaped damage.
First Sgt. Dave Bursten of the Indiana State Police said the lack of damage to structures on the fair's midway or elsewhere supported the weather service's belief that an isolated, significant wind gust caused the rigging to topple.
"All of us know without exception in Indiana the weather can change from one report to another report, and that was the case here," he said.
The stage toppled at 8:49 p.m. A timeline released by Indiana State Police shows that fair staff contacted the weather service four times between 5:30 and 8 p.m. At 8 p.m., the weather service said a storm with hail and 40 mph winds was expected to hit the fairgrounds at 9:15 p.m.
Bursten said fair officials had begun preparing in case they needed to evacuate visitors for the impending storm. At 8:30, additional state troopers moved to the grandstand to help in the event of an evacuation, according to the timeline.
Meteorologist John Hendrickson said it's not unusual for strong winds to precede a thunderstorm, and that Saturday's gust might have been channeled through the stage area by buildings on either side of the dirt track where the stage fell, at the bottom of the grandstand.
Fair officials said the Indiana Occupational Health and Safety Administration and state fire marshal's office were investigating. Bursten said the investigation could take months.
The owner of Mid-America Sound Corp., which installed the rigging, expressed sympathy for the families of those killed or injured. Kerry Darrenkamp also said the Greenfield, Ind.-based company had begun "an independent internal investigation to understand, to the best of our ability, what happened."
Zent, of Los Angeles, said the storm instantly transformed what had been a hot, sunny day.
"Just everything turned black. ... It was really cold, it was like winter, because I had been sweating all day. Wind blew over the ATM machine," Zent said.
He and his girlfriend, Jess Bates, were behind the grandstand when the heard a noise - the stage collapse. They began running as the wind buffeted them.
Bates said a woman who had been in the second row of the concert with her teenage daughter grabbed her and sobbed as she recounted pulling her daughter to safety while others rushed forward to try to help those pinned beneath the scaffolding.
"She was gripping me very tight, and I could just feel her shaking," Bates said. "She said, 'My daughter is all I have in this world and I almost lost her tonight,'" Bates said.
Â Dr. Dean Silas, a gastroenterologist from Deerfield, Ill., said it took about five minutes to work his way from the grandstands to the track after the collapse. He saw three bodies covered with plastic when he arrived.
He said it took about 25 minutes for volunteers and emergency workers to remove victims from beneath the rigging and load them onto makeshift stretchers.
"There had to be 75 to 100 people there helping out," he said.
Bursten identified those killed as Alina Bigjohny, 23, of Fort Wayne; Christina Santiago, 29, of Chicago; Tammy Vandam, 42, of Wanatah; and two Indianapolis residents: 49-year-old Glenn Goodrich and 51-year-old Nathan Byrd. Byrd, a stagehand who was atop the rigging when it fell, died overnight.
Sugarland singer Jennifer Nettles sent a statement to The Associated Press through her manager, saying she watched video of the collapse on the news "in horror."
"I am so moved," she said. "Moved by the grief of those families who lost loved ones. Moved by the pain of those who were injured and the fear of their families. Moved by the great heroism as I watched so many brave Indianapolis fans actually run toward the stage to try and help lift and rescue those injured. Moved by the quickness and organization of the emergency workers who set up the triage and tended to the injured."
Nettles and Kristian Bush, who perform as Sugarland, canceled their Sunday show at the Iowa State Fair.
Concert-goers and other witnesses said an announcer warned them of impending bad weather but gave conflicting accounts of whether emergency sirens at the fair sounded. Some fair workers said they never heard any warnings.
"It's pathetic. It makes me mad," said groundskeeper Roger Smith. "Those lives could have been saved yesterday."
Fair spokesman Andy Klotz said the damage was so sudden and isolated that he wasn't sure sirens would have done any good.
Indiana is prone to volatile changes in weather. In April 2006, tornado-force winds hit Indianapolis just after thousands of people left a free outdoor concert by John Mellencamp held as part of the NCAA men's Final Four basketball tournament. And in May 2004, a tornado touched down south of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, delaying the start of the Indianapolis 500 and forcing a nearly two-hour interruption in the race.
Daniels stood by the fair and its officials as they prepared to reopen Monday with a public memorial service to honor the victims.
"This is the finest event of its kind in America, this is the finest one we've ever had, and this desperately sad ... fluke event doesn't change that," he said.
Sunday's accident was the worst at the Indiana fairgrounds since a 1963 explosion at the fairgrounds coliseum killed 74 people attending an ice skating show.
(AP Photo/Jessica Silas)
President Barack Obama is headed to western Illinois during a three-day bus tour of Midwestern states this week.
Obama's itinerary is scheduled to include stops in Atkinson and Alpha in Henry County where he'll preside over town hall-style on Wednesday before returning to the White House.
The White House says President Barack Obama expects to get an earful from regular folks, including supporters, who are frustrated by Congress and some of Obama's decisions.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Friday that Obama expects to hear from people who are fed up with dysfunction in Washington and what he says is the willingness of some lawmakers to put politics ahead of the country.
Earnest also said Obama even expects some of his own supporters to challenge some of the compromises he made during negotiations with Congress to reduce government spending and trim the nation's debt.
Obama plans five events over three days in Minnesota, Iowa and Illinois. The tour begins Monday with a town hall-style event in Cannon Falls, Minn., followed by a second question-and answer session in Decorah, Iowa
A new online database lets people to see who has outstanding warrants in Cook County.
Sheriff Tom Dart said there are about 44,000 people in Cook County who have outstanding warrants. The new online database, he hopes, will help the office get some tips on the whereabouts of those people.
"This has a way of really flushing out the system, as well, and really doing a lot of very positive things because there's nothing good with having this many warrants in the system," Dart told reporters Friday.
Dart said about a third of the warrants outstanding are for traffic offenses and about 13,000 are for drug or theft charges.
The majority are not wanted for violent crimes, Dart said.
"There is a hope that there will be quite a few people who'll go to this website just, frankly, to check, maybe, theirself (sic) out," he said.
The sheriff said he's putting together a 500 most wanted list for the website, as well.
The city of Chicago could be near the end of a five-year legal battle for control of a former industrial parcel with potential to help form a 24-acre park. If an eminent-domain settlement holds up, the space could be an asset for a Mexican-American area of the Southwest Side.
Cook County Circuit Court Judge Sanjay T. Tailor this week signed off on the deal, under which the city will pay $7.5 million for 19 acres owned by 2600 Sacramento Corp.
The money will go to the Cook County Treasurer's Office and remain there as the company's owner, Joanne Urso, tries to settle with her lender, Texas-based United Central Bank, which last year filed a federal suit to foreclose on the property.
"I don't get a penny," Urso said Friday afternoon.
Urso's property would combine with a 5-acre plot the city already controls.
Activists in the Little Village neighborhood hailed the settlement.
"We have not seen any park development in over 75 years," said Kim Wasserman, executive director of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.
Wasserman's group has been pushing for the land to become a park for five years. She said the deal could inspire residents of other neighborhoods.
"Regardless of language and regardless of immigration status, as long as there is determination in these communities, we can continue to get the things that we need," she said.
The park concept has the backing of the local 12th Ward alderman, George Cárdenas.
The land was once the site of an asphalt and tar manufacturing facility. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the plant operated from about 1918 to 1982. The agency eventually declared the land a Superfund site. The contamination included cancer-linked chemicals that turned up in nearby homes and yards. An EPA statement says Honeywell International Inc. finished a site cleanup last year.
The city filed its eminent-domain suit in 2006. Reaching an agreement became more complicated last year, when the foreclosure proceedings began.
The payment, due September 7, will consist of $6 million from the Chicago Park District and more than $1.5 million from city general-obligation bonds, according to Jennifer Hoyle, a spokeswoman for Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
The time-frame for turning the land into a park is not clear. Ownership will transfer to Chicago upon payment, but the city is not specifying a date for transferring the acreage to the Park District. Hoyle said that could possibly happen later this year.
Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn wants to link college funding with student performance.
On Friday, he traveled to Western Illinois University's Moline campus to sign legislation designed to allocate state money based on how well students do in the classroom. Quinn says the law will help Illinois better compete in the global economy.
"In order to have a strong economy, you must have great education, including higher education," Quinn said. "Jobs follow brain power. We want to make sure we have plenty of engineers for John Deere and Caterpillar, and for our great agricultural businesses in Illinois."
Quinn says the legislation should boost the number of Illinois adults with college degrees from 41 percent to at least 60 percent by 2025.
Mahomet Republican Chapin Rose and Chicago Democrat Edward Maloney both sponsored the measure, which takes effect January 1st.
Faculty at the University of Illinois will spend three years developing material for nuclear plants that sustain great levels of heat and run more efficiently.
The National Science Foundation is funding the project through a grant of more than $530,000. The grant will allow U of I researchers to see how resistant new materials used in reactors are to fracture and fatigue, as well as corrosion.
The principal investigator and U of I engineering professor James Stubbins said he and five other faculty members on campus will work to develop a system that is cooled with helium rather than water.
"You're not relying on making the steam," he said. "You're just relying on heating a gas to extremely high temperatures. And if you do that, you can run the helium through an engine that looks like a jet engine and extracts electricity that way, getting the efficiency of the system from the heat to the electricity from 30 or 35 percent up to maybe 60 percent."
Stubbins said nuclear reactors made by a material resembling stainless steel would make it easier to remove heat in the event of a disaster, like what occurred earlier this year at the Japan Fukushima nuclear plant.
"In these kinds of reactors, you have a much different problem in removing the heat if there's an accident than the Fukushima-type of reactor," he said. "This type of reactor is much more resistant to these kind of problems, with the inability of the potential inability to remove the heat from the reactor core itself if they have to shut down suddenly."
Stubbins said Japan is starting to develop the kind of material that is less susceptible to corrosion, but he said the US is on the verge of developing such a reactor. He said one being designed in Idaho is intended to reach these high temperatures, but there are no such projects underway in Illinois.
Illinois' Senior Senator says a Congressional 'super committee' tasked with finding $1.5 trillion dollars in federal savings over the next 10 years has their work cut out for them.
The bipartisan Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction, which is made up of six Republicans and six Democrats, has until Thanksgiving to come up with a plan, and then sell it to the rest of Congress.
It's unclear where possible budget cuts may happen, but Democratic US Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois said food assistance programs should be preserved.
During a visit Friday morning to the Eastern Illinois Foodbank in Urbana, Durbin underlined the importance of these services, saying food banks across the state have seen a 50 percent uptick in food assistance requests during the last couple of years. Durbin also pointed out that the Eastern Illinois Foodbank has increased food distribution by 24 percent during the same period.
"My hope is that as we look for ways to cut spending, and we don't do it at the expense of feeding children and families that are struggling," Durbin said. "I hope that we can all agree - both parties can agree - on a good starting point there to preserve the safety net."
The Eastern Illinois Foodbank said last year it gave out 6.8 million pounds of food, with federal commodities making up about a quarter of that stock from The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP).
"It's been a really important program for food banks during the recession," said Cheryl Precious, director of development at the Eastern Illinois Foodbank. "We're worried about it to say the least."
Precious said the Eastern Illinois Foodbank is anticipating a 50 percent reduction in federal commodities for this upcoming year.
"That's going to significantly impact us," Precious said. "We're going to have to make up that food by purchasing or increasing donations or we're just going to have to get creative about it."
Durbin also emphasized the importance of social safety net programs - like unemployment benefits, Medicare and Medicaid, and job re-training programs. He said he hopes the country's financial problems and the recent downgrade of the nation's credit rating by Standard and Poors serve as a wakeup call to the 12-lawmakers on the bipartisan deficit reduction committee.
"If they go in with a spirit of bipartisanship and compromise where both sides are willing to give, we can get this resolved," Durbin said. "If they walk into the door with preconceived notions and political positions that are non-negotiable, nothing is going to happen. It's going to fail."
Durbin wouldn't comment on specific programs that should be cut, but he said he would like to see tax breaks for the wealthiest people trimmed back.
"If there's no agreement, we go into automatic cuts in both the defense and veterans side of it, as well as the other non-defense spending," he said. "I don't believe we can rationalize cutting the safety net in America when so many working families life from pay check to paycheck, and many with a paycheck can't make ends meet."
Meanwhile, Illinois' other US senator, Republican Mark Kirk, weighed in on the Congressional committee's task ahead during a news conference Wednesday in Chicago. Kirk said he does not think there is consensus in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives for any tax hikes.
Congress is in recess until after Labor Day. Kirk said the joint commission should start meeting next Monday. He also urged President Obama to recall Congress to get to work on the nation's debt problems.
"Congress should not be in recess right now," Kirk said. "We see tremendous anxiety with the potential of the U.S. to go into recession and one of the greatest ways to restore confidence is, not to have a speech and not to lay out a set of vague principles, but to see the elected representatives of the American people working on entitlement reforms right away."
If the committee fails to meet its Thanksgiving deadline to come up with a plan, or if Congress rejects their proposal, then $1.2 trillion dollars in automatic budget cuts would go into effect. Critics are expressing doubt that the bipartisan panel will overcome its stark political differences.
(Photo by Sean Powers/WILL)
Regional Education Superintendents in Illinois have been working without pay, ever since Gov. Pat Quinn cut their salaries out of the 2012 state budget. Quinn had said the elected positions are too costly, and not essential.
The salary cuts worried officials at the Champaign Unit Four School District, which is preparing six new and renovated school buildings for the fall semester.
At Unit 4's monthly news conference Friday morning, interim superintendent Robert Malito said the school district has sped up work this week on occupancy permits for the buildings, to make sure they were signed by Regional Superintendent Jane Quinlan before any disruptions occurred. Malito said Quinlin's signature on the documents is essential.
"Without those approvals from her, we would not be able to open," Malito said.
Malito said that under current state law, only the regional superintendent can sign off on the permits --- and that there are other duties, like certifying teachers, that only they can do as well.
Malito dismisses Gov. Quinn's suggestion that local school districts fund the regional offices. He said it is worth investigating how other states handle the duties of the regional offices to see if they do it more cost-effectively. But he said the office should NOT be eliminated before something is set up to replace it.
"Cutting us off at the knees and stopping that funding so drastically did not give the area school districts an opportunity to plan or prepare for making that sort of change," Unit 4 School Board President Sue Grey said.
Unit 4 officials say the paperwork for the occupancy permits were sent to Regional Superintendent Quinlan's office on Friday. The buildings include the new Booker T. Washington and Garden Hills magnet schools. In addition, Westview, Bottenfield, Kenwood and Robeson Elementary Schools were renovated, with new energy-saving windows over the summer.
University of Illinois President Michael Hogan says he has set up a scholarship fund that is available to students who are U.S. citizens and undocumented immigrants.
Students who are not living in this country lawfully have been ineligible for scholarships in Illinois, but that changed this month after Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation known as the Illinois Dream Act. The measure opens up privately funded college scholarships to illegal immigrants.
Hogan said he gave a $100,000 contribution to the University of Illinois Foundation for the scholarship, which will be for students majoring in history. He said every student should have a chance to get into the U of I, regardless of their legal status.
"It's both need and merit based," Hogan explained. "They're in a great position now to make a long-time contribution to the well-being of our state, and sustain a great reputation of the university."
Students can apply for the U of I scholarship through financial aid.
Gov. Quinn said he plans to appoint a nine-member commission by the middle of September to oversee scholarships created as a result of the Illinois Dream Act. Students must have at least one immigrant parent and must have attended school in Illinois for at least three years to qualify for scholarship money.
Illinois and several other states already provide undocumented students in-state tuition.
(AP Photo/Seth Perlman)
Illinois U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk cautioned Congress about a new committee that will fight the federal deficit.
Republicans and Democrats have selected nine of the committee's 12 members. Kirk said he is worried the committee won't be in a position to compromise.
"I worry about this joint commission that it may be too partisan," Kirk said. "One idea that I know will never have a chance would be to have the Democratic leaders to appoint the Republicans and the Republicans leaders appoint the Democrats, so that the people who played best in the sandbox would then take on the work of this joint committee."
Kirk urged President Obama to end the congressional recess so legislators can get the new debt committee ready by Monday.
Congress is not scheduled to return to work until after Labor Day.
(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
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