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August 16, 2011

Bystander: Stage collapse was 'pure chaos'

Dan Rozek
Chicago Sun-Times

INDIANAPOLIS — The three-story stage crumpled onto the crowd at the Indiana State Fair within seconds of being slammed by a powerful wind gust, but the disaster that killed a Chicago woman and four other people seemed to unfold "almost in slow motion," a suburban doctor said Monday.

"You could see the stage collapse almost in slow motion. You knew it was going to fall on people because there were so many people there," Dr. Dean Silas said of the Saturday night accident he witnessed from the arena grandstand. "It was absolutely unbelievable."

After the stage collapsed, Silas wrestled his way through the crowd to the infield to try to help the dozens of people injured by the falling metal scaffolding, speakers and other parts of the structure.

When he arrived in the infield four or five minutes after the collapse, Silas found "pure chaos" as spectators and volunteers scrambled to aid the injured.

"There was a mass of metal and humongous speakers that had fallen onto these people," said Silas, a gastroenterologist at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge.

The 52-year-old Deerfield resident quickly began working with other volunteers - mostly doctors, nurses and paramedics who had been in the audience awaiting the start of a concert - to try to aid all those hurt in the collapse.

He helped carry at least four injured people from the infield to a makeshift triage area under the grandstand. The volunteers used collapsible tables as stretchers to help carry the injured away from the stage, parts of which were still standing precariously over the infield, he said.

"A lot of the effort was trying to get people out," he said.

Silas treated three or four other patients for injuries caused by falling debris. Some people already were beyond help when he arrived, Silas said, recalling how he saw at least two bodies already covered with plastic sheets when he reached the infield.

He and others tried to lift some large music speakers to make it easier to reach those needing medical help, but were stymied by their sheer size.

"The speakers were too large," he said.

Silas and other volunteers worked for at least 10 to 15 minutes before he saw any organized medical response from emergency crews.

"It seemed to me it took a long time" for emergency medical aid to reach the injured, Silas said.

He didn't fault fair organizers for not canceling the planned concert by the group Sugarland before the mishap when the weather turned ominous, saying the wind gust that collapsed the stage "came out of absolutely nowhere."

He felt safe sitting in the covered grandstand with his wife, daughter and her boyfriend as the skies darkened.

"I didn't feel nervous about being in that area," he said.

But he said he still can't believe the stage structure collapsed within 10 or 15 seconds of being hit with the wind gust.

"That should never have happened," Silas said.

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