On August 13th, tragedy struck the Indiana State Fair, as a sudden gust of wind brought down the stage and light rigging of the band Sugarland, killing or injuring scores of people. I was among those in the grandstand anxiously watching the darkening skies to the west, while awaiting the performance of one of my favorite bands.
In the nine days since the tragic event, I have felt the sadness that follows the loss of now seven lives. I mourn their passing and pray for a speedy recovery for those injured. Yet, because of this event, I also have gained a newfound respect for the power of words and the message, a respect born out of my role as a professional communicator.
As I look back on the evening of the concert, I am struck by the impact that just a few words, some uttered out loud, others left unsaid, had on that crowd. When the opening act, singer Sara Bareilles, took the stage, it was a beautiful summer evening, with bright sunshine and blue skies. Barely 30 minutes later, that scene changed dramatically as dark clouds rolled in from the west.
Despite the threatening clouds, the message we heard from program officials was as encouraging as it was confusing. We were told; yes, the weather looked bad, but the show was about to start. We were given instructions on what to do if the weather got worse, but also told the band was planning to take the stage in just minutes. Talk about mixed messages. What were they really trying to tell us? Should we stay for the show or should we leave?
Now, if you were one of the fans who arrived very early to get a coveted spot in the standing room only “pit” immediately in front of the stage, those words likely meant stay put or risk losing your front row position. And as we all rationalized, surely the state fair folks had the best meteorological information available, since they were responsible for 15,000 concert fans, plus thousands more on the Fair midway. Surely, if the weather looked really dangerous, they would tell us. Right? But no one told the crowd “evacuate.” That message was never delivered. Instead, most stayed where they were and waited for the concert to begin.
Given our seats on metal grandstand bleachers, once we saw lightning, we were out of there, despite the message from fair officials. We could always come back once any danger passed. Not necessarily so for those down front in the pit. You all know what happened next. In just seconds, the excited words of fans eager for a show turned to screams of pain and anguish as the stage came down. One word, one single clear message – evacuate – could have changed everything.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, it’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback and say what should have happened. There are multiple investigations underway for just that purpose. But I admit, I am angry that people were given mixed messages about the situation. As a communicator, I am amazed at how a single word, and a very clear message before the show could have led to a far different outcome. There is one other critically important message missing from Fair officials in the days since the event – “We’re sorry.”
Maybe before too much more time passes, they will remember why that one is so important.