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Indiana stage disaster deadly reminder for Tampa Bay venues

TAMPA — Just over a year and a half ago, winds of more than 60 mph ripped through the Florida State Fair, collapsing a food tent and sending 13 to the hospital.

Over the weekend at the Indiana State Fair, similarly strong winds of 60 to 70 mph brought down rigging on a massive grandstand stage, killing five and injuring dozens as they waited for the country band Sugarland.

That deadly accident, a reminder of what could have happened here, is exactly what event organizers in the Tampa Bay area work to avoid — from monitoring quickly changing weather to issuing crowd warnings to disassembling stages for ominous storms.

Since the Florida State Fair accident in February 2010, executive director Chuck Pesano said, the fair has improved its emergency warning system, installing sirens and loudspeakers to get a crowd's attention.

"All of the grounds, including our buildings, are all locked into one emergency system," he said.

The system would help officials get visitors inside buildings at the fairgrounds if heavy storms arise, he said.

The 1-800-ASK-GARY Amphitheatre, also on the fairgrounds, is included in the system while the theater is in use during the fair, typically held in February.

The theater and most of the fairgrounds' buildings, he said, can withstand 100 mph winds.

Still, he said, it's rare that an incident the scale of the Indiana State Fair collapse would happen at the Florida fairgrounds, since the fair tends to use fixed amphitheaters for large events instead of temporary stages.

But that's not the case for events held in downtown St. Petersburg parks, where organizers frequently erect temporary stages.

Those stages — 40-foot-high masses of scaffolding, lights and speakers — come equipped with a "skin" or roof, said Scott Schecter, the president of Big Three Entertainment Group, which helps organize the annual Taste of Pinellas event.

When heavy winds blow underneath those roofs, they can cause structural damage.

"You can have this thing tied down with cables and cement blocks, but the wind is very powerful. Once it gets under that roof it can become really difficult to manage," Schecter said. "It becomes, effectively, a big sail."

The solution, in most cases, is to lower the roof partially or take it down entirely — better to cancel a concert, Schecter said, than risk a stage collapse.

At the Tampa Bay Blues Festival, held in Vinoy Park, president Chuck Ross said organizers will take down the stage's roof if they receive word of bad weather.

"Being familiar with wind, rain and hurricanes, we don't wait for the weather to get bad," he said.

That's the key to managing temporary stages, Schecter said — monitoring the weather and having a trained team to move guests to safety if the weather takes a turn for the worse.

Still, he said, such weather is hard to predict — and some stages, once they're readied for a show, are hard to take down.

Event organizers should be prepared for potential accidents "anywhere where you have big swings in weather," he said.

"We've seen it here — we've gone from beautiful sunny days to dark skies and heavy winds and downpours," he said. "You want to really make sure you've taken precautions and contingencies, and that you have professionals to react if something does happen."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Indiana stage disaster deadly reminder for Tampa Bay venues 08/15/11 [Last modified: Monday, August 15, 2011 10:32pm]
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