This is certain: An “extraordinary” gust of wind — recorded as 53 miles per hour at 4:54 p.m. October 27, 2010 — knocked over the Marklift MT40G hydraulic scissor lift and dropped 20-year-old Declan Sullivan to his death while the junior from Long Grove, Illinois, was filming football practice. But it wasn’t the only ingredient contributing to the tragedy.
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Other causes emerged as two teams of investigators examined the equipment, policies and practices that factored into the fall.
For one, the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration (IOSHA) assessed the University $77,500 in fines for a half-dozen violations. While those infractions probably would not have prevented the accident, the Indiana Department of Labor commissioner concluded in mid-March, “The evidence overwhelmingly demonstrated that the University made a decision to utilize its scissor lifts in known adverse weather conditions.”
Notre Dame has appealed the agency’s claims and disagreements have yet to be resolved.
A month later the University released its own report, a 145-page document resulting from an investigation approved by Peter Likins, the former president of Lehigh and the University of Arizona. The inquiry included test results and analysis from experts in wind engineering, aerial lifts and meteorology as well as interviews with more than 50 people.
The report (available at president.nd.edu/communications) pointed to several leading causes for the accident — the sudden burst of wind, staff members’ not monitoring on-field wind speeds during practice and the susceptibility of the lift to toppling, particularly at the height to which it was extended at the time of the fall. But the investigation cited no individual as being responsible for the accident.
“After a thorough and painstaking study,” University president John Jenkins, CSC, wrote in a letter accompanying the report, “we have reached the conclusion that no one acted in disregard for safety. Each individual involved based his decision and actions that day on the best information available at the time and in accord with the procedures that were in place.”
Jenkins declared the University “collectively responsible,” and again expressed his “deepest sorrow” to the Sullivan family, adding, “You entrusted him to our care, and we failed to keep him safe.”
According to the report, University procedures dictate that hydraulic lifts not be extended to their full height in winds between 25 and 35 miles per hour and be grounded when winds exceed 35 mph. While Tim Collins, in his 20th year as director of football video and film, was concerned about the weather that day, the report says “he did not believe that the winds were strong enough to warrant grounding the lifts.”
Collins and his staff monitored the winds throughout the day and noted speeds in the low to mid 20s, with afternoon gusts about 30 mph. The weather had been discussed by Collins and his crew, and the report provides Sullivan’s tweets regarding his safety. But seeing no wind speeds reported in excess of 35 mph, Collins concluded the lifts could be safely used, although he cautioned the videographers about fully extending the lifts and instructed them not to go higher than they felt comfortable.
However, at 2:54 p.m., less than 10 minutes after staff checked the weather for the last time before leaving for practice, the National Weather Service updated its data, recording winds at 29 mph with gusts up to 38. Wind velocities increased as the afternoon wore on, but no one monitored those speeds once practice began.
Three scissor lifts were in use by videographers that day, but only Sullivan’s Marklift — fully extended to 40 feet — toppled. The other two were each found to have a wind-speed “tipping point” in excess of 70 mph. The Marklift tested — similar in age and condition to the one Declan Sullivan manned, and raised to its full 40 feet — would reportedly tip over in winds gusting to 49 to 53 mph. Had the Marklift been extended to 30 feet, studies indicate it likely would have remained standing in gusts of 55 to 59 mph.
But on a day of surging winds, this one strong, sudden burst rocked the practice field and blew equipment, boxes, footballs, clothing and debris across the turf. Coaches and trainers, seeing the lifts sway, yelled, “Get down!” By then it was too late. One lift was gone, and with it Declan Sullivan.
Kerry Temple ’74 is editor of Notre Dame Magazine.