State Fair Tragedy: Why People Refuse to Leave

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The stage collapse at the Indiana State Fair August 13, 2011 in Indianapolis. Getty Images

A sixth person has died from injuries received last weekend when a stage collapsed at the Indiana State Fair. Nearly 50 people were injured when a strong wind pulled scaffolding and staging lights onto fans.

The event is made all the more tragic because the injuries and deaths could theoretically have been avoided. The crowd was warned ahead of time about a storm approaching.

The New York Times reported – “Minutes before the accident, as the crowd waited for Sugarland to take the stage after a warm-up act, an announcement was made warning that a storm was approaching that might delay the show and that shelter was available in three nearby facilities.”

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A few people heeded the warning and took shelter, though most stayed where they were and waited for the show. Even if the warning had come a few minutes earlier it’s unlikely the outcome would have been different. Americans have a long tradition of ignoring official warnings in times of impending disaster. Modern technology and advances in meteorology have allowed people to be warned of tsunamis, hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes hours and even days before the threat. But warnings don’t save lives if they are ignored.

Some have faulted state fair officials for not making the evacuation mandatory. The fact is that even mandatory orders to evacuate or seek shelter are often ignored, and few concert venues have enough onsite security staff to forcibly move 12,000 people in a short period of time. In disasters like hurricanes, mandatory evacuation orders cannot be enforced because there simply isn’t the manpower to arrest and forcibly move thousands of people.

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When residents refused to leave during mandatory evacuations of major hurricanes such as Katrina, exasperated public safety officials instructed those who chose to remain behind to write their names on their arms so their bodies could later be identified.

People refuse to evacuate for a variety of reasons. In the case of hurricanes, many are reluctant to leave their homes because they fear (sometimes correctly) that their homes may be looted or vandalized. Others take the position that they’ve lived in that home for half a century through previous bad storms, and by God they’re not moving.

The Sugarland concert audience had their own reasons for staying put. People in the stands farthest from the stage were in very little danger (there was nothing above or around them to harm them, and it’s not like a gust was going to lift hundreds of people into the air); those closest to the stage were in greater danger but had good reason not to leave their position: they had great front-row seats they didn’t want to give up, even temporarily.

Human psychology and experience are even stronger influences. The wind gust that brought down the stage was a freak accident, a random event. Every day across the country hundreds of outdoor performances in inclement weather go ahead without injury or death. The rarity of this tragedy highlights why people don’t think that it will happen to them, and they are right—until it does.