Deerfield doctor helped Indiana stage collapse victims

 
 
Updated 8/15/2011 6:25 AM
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  • Indiana State Police and authorities survey the collapsed rigging and Sugarland stage on the infield at the Indiana State Fair in Indianapolis Sunday Aug. 14 2011. Five people died in the stage collapse.

    Indiana State Police and authorities survey the collapsed rigging and Sugarland stage on the infield at the Indiana State Fair in Indianapolis Sunday Aug. 14 2011. Five people died in the stage collapse. Associated Press

  • Christina Santiago, 29, of Chicago, was among five people killed Saturday when a stage collapsed at the Indiana State Fair.

    Christina Santiago, 29, of Chicago, was among five people killed Saturday when a stage collapsed at the Indiana State Fair. Photo Courtesy of Hal Baim/Windy City Times

Deerfield physician Dr. Dean Silas was in the 19th row of the grandstand at the Indiana State Fair with his wife, daughter and her boyfriend when a fair official announced the Sugarland concert they'd gone to see would go on despite a storm brewing on the horizon.

"They were hopeful that the show could be completed. There was no instruction given to evacuate at that point," Silas said. "The crowd in the infield started to raise a ruckus, and you could see there was a lot of flying dirt and sand."

About three minutes later, just before 9 p.m., the stage collapsed in winds gusting at more than 60 mph, killing five people, including a 29-year-old Chicago woman, and seriously injuring dozens more Saturday night in Indianapolis.

"Chaos. It was absolute chaos," Silas said. "There was no organization, but everyone was helping somebody or trying to get the equipment off folks or lifting the structure."

Silas' daughter, a weather aficionado, began to film the brewing storm as it strengthened and captured the tragic event.

"She was taking stills as the front moved in, and she started taking video as the winds started blowing," he said. "About 10 or 15 seconds after that is when you could see the tarp on the top of the scaffold rip apart and blow away and within seconds the whole scaffolding and support structure collapsed."

Silas, a 52-year-old gastroenterologist at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, rushed to the horrific scene with about 100 other concertgoers and event staff who carried the injured to shelter on tabletops turned into makeshift stretchers.

There were no ambulances or medical staff on site, and emergency personnel did not arrive until about 10 minutes after the collapse, Silas said

"I identified myself as a physician and said I wanted to help," he said. "I saw a number of patients, some severely injured, some not so severely injured."

Workers set up a command center to treat the injured in a tunnel below the stage as lightning filled the sky and rain poured down on the fairground.

Indiana State Police said the number of people injured has risen to about 40, some with life-threatening injuries.

"Everybody was pitching in to do what they could to assist the injured, move equipment and move the scaffolding," Silas said. "It started to rain very slightly, but everybody knew there was a big storm coming."

Among those reported killed was Christina Santiago of Chicago, described as a "rising star" and "community champion for women's health" by the Howard Brown Health Center, a Chicago health organization where she worked.

"The sudden and devastating loss of Christina has left the entire community, including her Howard Brown Health Center family, heartbroken," Jamal M. Edwards, the center's president and CEO said in a statement Sunday. "Our thoughts and prayers go out to Christina's friends and family, and her beautiful partner, Alisha Brennon, who is also a dear friend of HBHC and was severely injured, but not killed, in the accident."

Santiago was manager of the Lesbian Community Care Project at Howard Brown and worked at the health center for nearly six years, Edwards said. Her loved ones and co-workers were holding a vigil Sunday night to mourn her.

Dan McCarthy, chief meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Indiana, said the 60 to 70 mph burst of wind that toppled the massive rigging was far stronger than gusts in other areas of the fairground.

A timeline released by the Indiana State Police shows that fair staff contacted the weather service four times between 5:30 and 8 p.m., and at 8 p.m. the weather service said a storm with hail and 40 mph winds was expected to hit the area at 9:15 p.m.

First Sgt. Dave Bursten of the Indiana State Police said fair officials began preparing to evacuate visitors if need be, and at 8:30 p.m. additional troopers moved to the grandstand to help evacuate the crowd if the order was given.

The stage collapsed at 8:49 p.m.

Bursten identified the others killed as Alina Bigjohny, 23, of Fort Wayne, Ind.; Tammy Vandam, 42, of Wanatah, Ind.; and two Indianapolis residents, 49-year-old Glenn Goodrich and 51-year-old Nathan Byrd. Byrd, a stagehand who was atop the rigging when it fell, died overnight.

The duo Sugarland, Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush, were about to take the stage, but a decision by their tour manager may have saved their lives.

They were in a bunker, "in a prayer circle waiting to go onstage, and the tour manager held for a few minutes because of the weather," the country duo's manager Gail Gellman told CNN. "And if she hadn't held, everybody would have been on the stage. But obviously it's devastation regardless. ... It's just overwhelming for us."

• The Associated Press contributed to this report.