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Danger in the grandstands

Published Sep. 2, 2005

They never saw it coming.

One instant they were sports fans, the next they were sports casualties.

And many have never been the same. They have faced physical and emotional trauma, years of medical bills, legal fights _ and haunting memories of the moment their sense of safety in the grandstands was shattered.

Though fatal accidents are rare, the death of 13-year-old Brittanie Cecil, struck by an errant puck at a National Hockey League game in Ohio last week, was a devastating reminder that flying balls, pucks, bats and car parts can hurt or kill fans. A spectator's close call a day later at Tampa's Ice Palace _ he was hit by a puck but not injured _ underscores the risks for fans of hockey, baseball, auto racing, even golf.

Even when the venue is tiny, the experience can be overwhelming.

"You feel invaded, like something occurred that could have taken your life," says Joanne Cooley, a Connecticut mother struck in the face by a foul ball at her child's softball game. "You feel like you've been mugged."

Unlucky victims usually say they never thought it could happen to them, though they knew enough to watch out for foul tips and loose slap shots. They say they paid far less attention to the ubiquitous fine print on the backs of tickets that absolves sports venues of liability for fan injuries.

But unless they want to view sports as couch potatoes, "There is an assumption of risk that spectators engage in when they go to an athletic event," says David Fried, head of DEP Accident Analysis Inc. in Cedarhurst, N.Y., a sports safety consultant for the past 20 years. "There are the warnings on the back of the tickets about baseballs or pucks coming into the stands. There are announcements made from time to time on the PA. There are signs as you walk in, which say "be aware.' Spectators should know there is a possibility of being struck."

Hockey is a particularly risky spectator sport, says Steve Bernheim, head of Sports & Recreation Consultants Inc. in New York, which assists both plaintiffs and defendants in spectator injury cases. "There are approximately 20 to 24 errant pucks leaving the surface during the game, and those pucks in a pro game, besides being hard rubber, are frozen," he says. "If it hits you, it can have the effect of cutting you like a bread knife."

Bernheim advocates raising the Plexiglas walls in NHL arenas and installing protective see-through netting used in professional lacrosse and in an increasing number of hockey arenas in Europe. "But it's very hard to get people to move and change," he says.

Bernheim says fans need to be vigilant, but he also says courts could be more consumer friendly. Though settlements are not uncommon, courts often side with sports entities when lawsuits come to trial.

Brittanie Cecil's death was the first fan fatality in NHL history, and Major League Baseball counts only five fan deaths in its history. But auto race tracks have a worse record: Since 1990, 29 racing spectators have been killed by cars or flying parts, and another 70 have been injured.

A Citrus County man and father of three, Lake Wilson, suffered a major head injury in 1990, when the hood of a race car at Citrus County Speedway sailed over a fence and struck him full force. Wilson was in a coma for 10 months, emerging brain damaged. He won a settlement of $2.7-million _ not from the speedway, but the company that distributed the pins that failed to hold the car hood in place. He later moved to a New Jersey convalescent home.

Last July at an Ohio race track, one woman was killed and 11 others injured when two cars smashed into the stands. Among the survivors was 70-year-old Ivan Zirkle.

"I don't remember seeing the wreck or the car or anything," said Zirkle, from his home in Avon, Ohio. "I was watching the lead cars, and the ones that wrecked were the last two. I didn't see them. When I came to, the first thing I saw was a car sitting about four feet in front of me in the grandstands. I started looking for the individual sitting next to me and found her underneath the car." (She survived with a leg fracture.)

Zirkle managed to stand up and walk 20 feet, with four broken ribs and a broken foot, to an ambulance. A week later, his lungs filled with blood. He was rushed to the hospital and given last rites. But he pulled through.

Zirkle is still in pain but hopes to be well enough to go turkey hunting this fall.

"I'm okay," he says. "I'd go back and see another race. But I'd probably sit a little farther up in the stands next time."

These are tales of some other spectator casualties:


On March 17, 1999, Robyn Queen, 38, was working as an usher on the second-level mezzanine at the Scope arena in Norfolk, Va., guiding minor-league hockey fans to their seats when she turned to answer a question.

Suddenly, she felt as if she'd been shot in the head. Blood gushed from her nose and forehead. She couldn't see. Had she been blinded? Then she heard a voice on her radio headset saying that somebody had been hit by a puck and to find that person immediately.

"I couldn't let go of my face to tell them it was me," she remembers. "Blood was pouring out of my nose like a river, and from above my eye."

The slap shot that rocketed over the glass, at likely around 100 mph, caused a deep gash along Queen's nose and eyebrow. It broke her nose, pushing it to one side, and it ripped the skin away from her forehead. "I thought I'd lost my eye, but it was the skin hanging over it," she says. "The whole side of my face was numb."

Three years later, Queen says she's lucky to be alive. Had she not turned her head at the last moment, she would have been hit directly in the temple.

"It has caused my teeth to abscess on that side of my face, and my dentist says that's because the force of the puck probably severed the nerve endings," she says. "And I'm still numb in the corner of one eyebrow. But as far as scarring, I had an excellent plastic surgeon, and you can't tell I was hit from looking at me."

Queen returned to her ushering job for a few games the next season but didn't enjoy it anymore. She focused on her full-time job as a hospital X-ray technician, a position she still holds, and turned to the love and support of her husband and young son.

The hockey team sent her an autographed jersey, but the club's insurance company offered her only $500 compensation. In the end, Queen was paid for the three weeks she missed on her hospital job. And she didn't think much about hockey until last week, when she heard the news reports about Brittanie Cecil.

"It brought everything back; I was like, "oh, no,' and I had shivers all over my body," she says. "I just feel so bad for that little girl and for her parents. Even now, talking about it, I get shivers."

For Queen, the obvious lesson is to keep your eye on the ice. "But even when you pay attention," she says, "those things go so fast. The truth is, something like this could happen to anybody."


Pam Mackinem was beside her husband at the North Charleston Coliseum six years ago, watching their local minor league hockey team, the Sting Rays. They sat in choice seats nearly even with the top of the protective Plexiglas.

Mackinem saw someone slap the puck, but she never saw it speeding toward her once it left the white backdrop of ice.

She remembers the blow, then the blood. The puck had smashed directly into her mouth, dislodging her front teeth, bending others sideways and splitting apart her upper lip.

A career nurse, Mackinem forced herself to stay calm and remain conscious. "It was a battle, because I knew I was hurt," she says. "I was just trying to control the bleeding in my face. I remember the people at the stadium got me out of there as quickly as possible. I remember keeping my hand over my mouth, because there were a lot of young children, and I didn't want to frighten them."

A dentist met Mackinem at the hospital and saved several of her loose teeth. But it was just the beginning of an ordeal that would include five root canals and extensive dental work. For weeks, she could not talk or eat solid food.

Afterward, Mackinem kept thinking about the young couple with two young children seated in front of her: "I'm a fighter, and I got through it, but I kept thinking how a child could not have survived it. And I thought, somebody needs to do something about this _ it needs to be prevented."

So Mackinem said she sued to make her point.

"I got a small settlement, which may help with my teeth down the road, but the most important thing is what I learned," she says. "I learned there are choices, that this is preventable."

Mackinem wishes hockey arenas were shielded with plastic netting, as are some facilities in Europe. She wishes they would raise the height of the Plexiglas.

When she heard about Brittanie Cecil's death, "I was very upset, because this could have been prevented. A child with her whole life ahead is dead. Please _ these people have a responsibility to the public to make hockey arenas as safe as they can be. If a net makes it 10 percent safer, isn't it worth installing a lousy net?"

Mackinem, who has permanently lost feeling in her upper lip, has not attended a hockey game since the accident, preferring baseball now. "But I'm very careful where I sit," she says. "My husband and I always sit behind home plate, where there's a net to protect you. Because they can say to keep your eye on the game, but I guarantee you, it happens so fast you cannot see it coming."


You go to a youth softball game, take a seat in the bleachers with the other parents behind a fence, and you feel safe. That's how it was one balmy evening in 1995 for Joanne Cooley, as she and her husband watched their 11-year-old compete on a New Milford, Conn., diamond.

As the game progressed, she paid no attention to a small gap in the fence several feet from where she sat. It was the kind of gap you could try to throw a ball through 100 times and never succeed. But one of the most inexperienced batters on the squad launched a vicious foul tip that blasted through the fence opening.

It all happened so fast that the parents seated around her never saw the impact. They only saw Cooley, leaning into her husband. She had been struck in the head above one eye and knocked unconscious. When she came to several moments later, she saw a line of young boys _ including her son _ pressed against the fence, looking petrified.

"It felt like a cement wall had hit my forehead, and I remember thinking I didn't want to cry in front of the boys _ I was afraid it would scare them even more," she says. "So my husband got me to our car, and we headed to the hospital a few minutes away. I couldn't stop crying then. And I couldn't remove my hands from my head _ it felt like one of those 1950s cartoons, as if there was a hole shot clear though it."

Doctors thought she had fractured her skull. It turned out to be a concussion. The pain soon passed, but the accident aggravated problems she had with a lazy eye. It also shook her emotionally.

"I was very nervous for a long time after that, says Cooley, 52. "I had trouble sleeping. It really spooked me."

The defective fence also made Cooley angry. She had complained about unsafe conditions on the field a year before, but no one had listened. Now she wanted to make them take notice. "They couldn't undo what happened to me, but I wanted to shake the people in charge up, because there were a lot of kids, and it just wasn't safe," she says.

So she sued the league and won a modest settlement from its insurance company. "I didn't care about the money _ the most important thing that came out of it is that they built all new fences," she says. "What happened to me wasn't the worst thing in the world. But what if it had been a child who was hit? They probably would have been killed."

Cooley returned to the softball field a week after the accident. She stayed carefully behind a fence and asked the coaches to summon the little boy whose foul tip had injured her.

"They told me he was beside himself, and he wasn't talking to the other boys," she says. "I wanted him to know it wasn't his fault."

Since then, she hasn't been back to a sporting event. "If I want to see a game," she says, "I watch on a big-screen TV."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.

Cheer _ at your own risk

Ever read the back of your ticket when you go to a game? The legalese varies, but most tickets say you attend at your own risk. Here's what some sports teams and venues say in fine print about the dangers of fandom.


The holder of this ticket voluntarily assumes all risk and danger incidental to the game of Baseball .


. including specifically (but not exclusively) the danger of being injured by thrown bats, fragments thereof, and thrown and batted balls or other objects .




Spectators are at their own risk with respect to the dangers incidental to the football game .


. whether occurring prior to, during or after the actual playing of the game.








The holder of this badge assumes all risk and danger incidental to the game of golf and releases PGA Tour sanctioned tournaments and competitions and their host sites, the sponsors, host organizations, PGA Tour Inc., participating players and all agents thereof from any and all liabilities resulting from such cases.


(Ticket for Formula 1 SAP United States Grand Prix, Sept. 28-29, 2001)