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Merchants, not city, likely to shoulder brunt of bigger responsibility for tent safety

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 30, 2012 - Saturday’s fatal tent accident at Kilroy’s Sports Bar will certainly lead to greater precautionary measures — not so much for the city but for businesses and other organizations providing tents, according St. Louis’ director of public safety.

The collapse of the beer tent, at 720 South 7th St. near Busch Stadium around 4 p.m. following the Cardinals game, led to the death of Alfred Goodman, 58, of Waterloo, Ill., and sent 21 people to area hospitals. About 100 people were treated on the scene.

Public Safety Director Eddie Roth, who spent Monday brainstorming with Fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson and other city officials, said the focus is not on improving the city’s safety inspections. It’s on getting business, churches and other organizations that put up tents to create and enact comprehensive safety plans because it's not possible to make tents much safer.

“People need to understand that tents, by their nature, are temporary structures that are not suited to provide shelter even in moderately severe weather,” Roth said. “Even trailers or automobiles are safer — and they tell you to get out of those.”

Inspections focus on fire, not wind

The tent at Kilroy’s had been up since the Cardinal’s April 13 home opener. It was inspected by the city several days after it granted Kilroy's the standard six-month permit April 11, according to Roth.

On Saturday afternoon, a severe thunderstorm warning was in effect, but such a warning does not require the city of St. Louis to sound its sirens. Regardless, severe weather issues are not foremost in the minds of tent inspectors. Fire is the more likely scenario, so making sure nothing is blocking people from leaving a tent is the primary concern.

Regulations state that all temporary structures — awnings, signs and tents over 1,000 square feet — must be able to withstand a “three-second burst of up to a 90-mile-per-hour wind,” according to Roth. This includes structures as large as the big top under which the recent Cavalia equestrian show was held.

Roth said most tent manufacturers do conform to that standard, but the city cannot independently confirm compliance.

“We do not have any wind tunnel or measuring device,” Roth said. “We rely on the manufacturer’s certification that it can withstand a 90-mile-per-hour wind.”

The reasons this particular tent failed is “an open question,” Roth said. “There is no preliminary finding as to whether installation contributed to it or whether degradation of the material was a factor.”

On Saturday, wind gusts were reported to be as strong as 70 miles an hour. But that’s not even relevant, according to Roth, who said patrons should have been told to leave when the storm first began.

“I feel like the 90-mile-an-hour thing is beside the point,” Roth said. “If you clear people out before the storm, you won’t have anyone hurt.”

Roth and other officials are zeroing in on an educational campaign for businesses and organizations that provide tents of all sizes to prevent future tragedies. Regulations already require one person from an organization to stay under the tent during an event. But that person needs to be ready to implement a plan, similar to that of a fire drill.

“The people who run these businesses need to think these things through: Where can we send people, to buildings, lobbies and other places within a five-block area?” Roth said.

In addition, responsibility for safety may also fall on those who set up tents.

“We are looking at requiring a certification from the tent installer that the tent has been installed in keeping with the manufacturer’s instructions and city code,” Roth said. “We do not require that now.”

Reopening of ‘happy place’ uncertain

After the tent collapsed, eight people, including Goodman, were taken to Saint Louis University Hospital, where four were admitted. Five of the 13 taken to Barnes-Jewish Hospital were admitted there. Three victims remain at SLU Hospital, one in serious condition in the intensive care unit, the other two in fair and good conditions. Two remaining injured were released from Barnes-Jewish Monday afternoon

Since January 2010, the city has granted 265 tent permits. Roth has not heard of any other tent incident that resulted in significant injury.

Kilroy’s tent is down now, and the business will never put up another one, according to owner Art Randall, who said he is devastated by the incident. Randall briefly performed CPR on Goodman, the man who died, before other, more qualified customers took his place.

“Three guys came running over with beers in their hand and worked on him for at least a half hour before the ambulance got there,” Randall said.

Randall and his family will be at the bar during this week’s games if anyone wants to come in and talk about what happened, but they will not be serving alcohol. He’s not sure when the bar will be back in business.

“I have a bar that’s a happy place,” Randall said. “If it was a hardware store or some other kind of shop [I might stay open], but how do I open up something that’s all about celebrating?”

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.