Police: Collapsed high school stage lacked proper supports

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WESTFIELD, Ind. (AP) — An orchestra pit cover that collapsed during an Indiana high school production, sending students plunging about 10 feet, was built by a part-time school employee with student help and wasn't properly supported from beneath, authorities said Tuesday.

The original pit cover at Westfield High School, about 20 miles north of Indianapolis, had been removed in January and the school employee bought building materials and built a new cover based on his own design with the help of students, Police Capt. Charles Hollowell said. When that replacement was installed, it lacked metal supports underneath it and had a header beam that wasn't properly secured to the stage structure, he said.

Prosecutors have decided against filing any charges stemming from the April 23 stage failure during the grand finale of an "American Pie" concert, in which 17 students were injured.

Westfield Washington Schools Superintendent Mark Keen said some of the young people suffered serious injuries, including one student who has not yet returned to classes. All of the students "appear to be doing well," he said.

It wasn't immediately clear why the original pit cover was replaced or when the replacement cover was installed. That original was held up by steel frames that anchor into the concrete subfloor, but the replacement did not incorporate those metal supports — or any other vertical supports — in its construction, Keen said.

"These steel metal structures hold the pit (cover) in place so that it can't fall. This had none of that in place. It was just inserted and nailed into the trim around the outside of the pit opening," Keen said.

Keen said the school's maintenance staff was not involved in building or installing the replacement cover. Instead, the school's auditorium director — a part-time employee whose job is to rent that space to private groups — bought the materials and he and students built it according to his own design, he said. The superintendent said he did not have information about the students involved or if they were from the school's shop, theater or other programs.

The district will conduct its own investigation focusing on school personnel, he said. That includes looking into whether any other school officials gave approval for the project or may have reimbursed the auditorium director for the construction supplies.

Keen said the auditorium director isn't on suspension and there's no work for him presently at the school because the auditorium remains closed. When the district's probe is done, he said "we will take whatever appropriate course of action" is needed.

The original stage had been in place since the school opened in 1997, Keen said, and had hosted more than 2,800 events without any problems. He said the previous orchestra pit cover had typically been removed only once a year to allow for student musicians to perform in that space.

"Why wasn't it put back on? We don't know. Those are the why questions we can't answer," Keen said.

The replacement was installed in time for a school musical in mid-March. During that production, student musicians performed in the space beneath the cover — something that would not have been possible if the original cover and its supports were in use, he said. No band was performing beneath the cover when it collapsed.

Indiana's workplace safety agency is also investigating after determining that at least one school employee was involved in setting up the replacement cover, said Bob Dittmer, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Labor. That inquiry is expected to take another four to six weeks, he said.

"We will interview everyone who had a role in the stage and its stage supports," Dittmer said.

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