The lessons from Declan's death

Daily Herald Editorial Board
Updated 11/6/2010 8:52 PM

"Gust of wind up to 60 mph well today will be fun at work... I guess I've lived long enough :-/"

Declan Sullivan's words, posted on Facebook and Twitter, proved to be poignantly and tragically prescient, as most readers know by now.


"Work" was video recording Notre Dame University football practice from atop a hydraulic scissor lift. An hour and a half after that posting, and after another one that noted, "This is terrifying," the lift toppled in wind gusts as strong as 51 mph. Declan, a 20-year-old junior from Long Grove and a graduate of Carmel High School in Mundelein, was thrown to the ground and killed.

Whether the posts showed true fear or just wry sarcasm, as some of his friends have said, doesn't change the question of why a young man would be on a mobile tower that could rise as high as 50 feet during an unusual windstorm that by then had been forecast for days.

Declan's death is under investigation and little has been publicly said about how that afternoon unfolded on the Notre Dame football field, yet it's easy to imagine a scenario where no one told him to get up on the tower despite the wind, but no one told him not to. It's clear that at the very least, those in charge failed to order him down as winds topped the safety limits set for the lift.

It's our misfortune that we didn't know Declan, an admirable young man by all reports. Yet we've seen, it's often the nature of a highly motivated student in a highly selective college to go the extra mile, get the job done, make his mark.

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And it's the nature of a big-money college football program and a high-profile new coach to push forward, mold an unbeatable offense, take no account of the weather.

When those traits collide, the result can be tragedy.

It's telling that Declan's first posting to his friends assumed he'd be on the tower that day, in the full force of the wind.

One obvious lesson: In a hard-charging atmosphere that gives no glory to the cautious, people in responsible positions must be held specifically accountable for putting on the brakes. That's especially true if they're in charge of students.

And we need to make sure young people who aren't always predisposed to taking the safe route know that they are asked to listen closely to their inner misgivings and act on them. They need to be shown that they won't be counted out of the game if they raise questions of safety to their bosses, not just to their Facebook peers.

On Friday, the president of the university acknowledged that the school is responsible for failing to protect Declan and causing his death.

The Rev. John Jenkins also promised change and brought in consultants to help with it. That change must come to more than a new policy in a handbook. Safety must take precedence over the next football game. It must be first in everyone's mind.