It came down to seconds and one instinctive decision that may have saved the lives of country duo Sugarland and others at the Indiana State Fair where five people died when a stage collapsed.
Tour manager Hellen Rollens looked at the sky and decided to hold the band backstage. A minute later, 60 to 70 mph wind gusts toppled the roof and the metal scaffolding holding lights and other equipment on Saturday night in Indianapolis. It crashed into the audience, killing four instantly and fifth later at a hospital. Dozens were injured, some critically.
When they heard the deafening boom of the stage crashing, Sugarland and crew hit the ground and took cover against a wall, thinking it was going to collapse on top of them. At some point, they made it out of the dust and debris and converged on their tour bus.
“There was no running out anywhere,” Sugarland manager Gail Gellman told The Associated Press on Monday. “No one knew what happened. It was just the moment when your eyes get big.”
Gellman said others felt it was safe to go on stage, but Rollens ultimately acted on her intuition.
“As a tour manager, it’s super important to understand what the weather conditions are when you play outside. We’ve always talked about not putting the band on during wind, lightning or heavy rain,” said Gellman, who was in Las Vegas with another client that night.
“Everybody was standing in a prayer circle getting ready to go onstage, and Hellen, as she was walking down the ramp, the stage fell. So her decision to hold them for literally a minute saved every band member and crew’s life.”
The calamity has deeply touched Sugarland members Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush.
Nettles said in a statement that she watched video of the collapse on the news “in horror” and was “moved by the grief of those families who lost loved ones.” She said she was also “moved by the great heroism” of fans who ran toward the stage to help rescue the injured.
Gellman met up with Nettles on Sunday and has watched her struggle to cope since then.
“There are moments I can see great clarity in her eyes, and there are moments I can see her tears well up so much that I just don’t know what to do,” Gellman said. “She’s just processing and wants to encourage people to be together, to support each other.”
Bush went home to be with his children in Georgia.
Gellman strongly believes it was the weather and not a staging problem that brought down the Indiana State Fair structure. She said it will not dictate how she guides her acts in the future.
“I would pose the same question to every band that goes out there, Keith Urban, Kenny (Chesney). We all tour during the summer. We all play outside. We’re all cognizant and very aware of what we hang and what we do,” she said. “We have restrictions and requirements (from each venue), and we stand by every single one of them.”
Sugarland’s elaborate set for their “Incredible Machine” tour was destroyed in the collapse. They canceled their Sunday show at the Iowa State Fair, but are “hoping and preparing” to perform as scheduled in Albuquerque, N.M., Thursday.