INDIANAPOLIS – An Indiana Air Guardsman and medical expert found himself at the wrong place at the right time late Saturday night when the concert stage collapsed at the Indiana State Fair Saturday, August 13, 2011 in Indianapolis, killing five and injuring at least 40 more.
Senior Medic, Master Sgt. James Stranahan, of Shelburn, Ind., 53rd Civil Support Team, was in the third row stands when the stage collapsed. He witnessed the stage fall onto roughly 50 people who were still in the sand pit. He jumped over the guard rail and took action.
Stranahan triaged, treated and helped evacuate more than a dozen injured in the tragedy. Having responded to mass casualty situations before on deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, he said this hit very close to home.
“In the military, there’s always that potential,” said Stranahan. “But, an accident of this magnitude, it’s tough. I’m an older guy, I feel like I can handle it. I feel bad for those kids that have to live with this memory for the rest of their lives.”
Stranahan has more than 29 years experience in the military including more than 20 years in the Indiana Army and Air National Guard. His military expertise, as well as his mission with the 53rd CST, is responding to civil emergencies from natural disasters to attacks from weapons of mass destruction.
Stranahan attended the fair with this girlfriend after he received a phone call earlier that evening from a coworker offering him tickets to Saturday’s concert. He and his girlfriend watched the opening act in the sand pit, just in front of the stage. Stranahan and his girlfriend returned to their ticketed seats after the opening act. Roughly 30 minutes later, tragedy struck. Stranahan described the strong and sudden 60-mph gust of wind that ripped through the fair collapsing the stage.
“Within just a few minutes, the wind picked up and the temperature dropped,” Stranahan said. “I could see just a wall of dust and debris tear through the Ferris wheel.”
Stranahan said the wind then hit the stage that caused it to fall within seconds. He also thought there would be a lot of injured fans.
“With all my military training, and the medical side, I knew I needed to spring into action to help these injured people,” he said.
“After the collapse of the stage, we started using whatever we could to help evacuate the casualties out from underneath the stage. We used the chairs that were knocked down, we folded them up and used them as litters. Guys were cutting pieces tarp, taking pieces of the collapsed stage, whatever they could find to help these injured people.”
Stranahan and others worked for more than an hour through the storm to try to save as many lives as they could. He treated head wounds, lacerations, broken bones, and other injuries. He dressed their wounds and carried them out. He said he witnessed firefighters, police, emergency medical technicians react but what amazed him was the multitude of bystanders who stepped forward. Doctors, nurses, and military service members there just to watch the show, stepped into action to come to the aid of their community.
“It was very gratifying to me, being military and me being a Hoosier, to see so many people come together, so quickly, from all different walks of life to help save those injured folks,” Stranahan said.
Stranahan’s enlisted supervisor praised his wealth of experience and his actions Saturday.
“His many experiences range from deploying for Operation Desert Storm and Desert Shield, Operation Iraqi Freedom, to responding to Hurricane Katrina,” said 1st Sgt. Tyson Johnson, 53rd CST. “All of this contributes to his immediate responsible reaction to the incident at the fairgrounds. According to his account of the events and the many news reports, he and the others were but a small percentage of the attendees that chose to run into harm’s way when all others were running for safety. Without hesitation he did exactly what he has been trained to do, and then some; assuredly, if the need should arise again he wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.”
By Sgt. John Crosby