MERRILLVILLE, Ind. – The tour manager who was widely credited with saving the lives of country duo Sugarland before a deadly stage collapse at last summer’s Indiana State Fair has become a central focus of lawyers seeking millions in damages for the families of seven people who died and dozens who were injured.
Fair officials say they had a concert promoter ask the band twice to delay the Aug. 13 concert because of concerns about severe weather, but were rebuffed. Investigative reports unveiled last week said tour manager Hellen Rollens told a state fair representative, “It’s only rain. We can play.”
Excerpts from Sugarland lead singer Jennifer Nettles’ video testimony last week in Charleston, W. Va., were released Monday by Merrillville attorney Kenneth J. Allen, who represents victims of the stage collapse. In her deposition, Nettles said that she wasn’t aware what fans were told about the timing of the concert.
“I don’t know if anybody was told anything,” she said.
Asked if she felt responsible for the safety of the fans given the heavy equipment on stage, she said, “I don’t feel it’s my responsibility or my management’s responsibility to evacuate the fans in case of danger. Do I care about their safety? Absolutely.”
Sugarland spokesman Allan Mayer said Monday that Nettles and Bush say they were never asked to delay the show.
Reports released last week after months of investigation faulted the fair for the lack of clear safety protocols and confusion over who was in charge. Reports also said the stage design was grossly inadequate. But victims and survivors’ families who are seeking millions of dollars in damages still want answers and have filed lawsuits against various entities involved in the show.
Determining who was responsible for the decision not to delay the concert could be a key factor in the outcome of those lawsuits.
The fair’s executive director, Cindy Hoye, said in a deposition in February that she asked Eric Milby, a representative for a concert promotion company, to seek a delay. According to a report released last week by Witt Associates, which was hired by the state to examine the decisions made on Aug. 13, Milby and tour manager Rollens discussed putting off the show, but Rollens said the band wanted to go on and was willing to play in the rain.
But at show time, Rollens held the band backstage for a prayer circle, Sugarland manager Gail Gellman told The Associated Press in August. A minute later, the stage rigging collapsed as Rollens walked down the ramp, Gellman said.
“Her decision to hold them for literally a minute saved every band member and crew’s life,” Gellman said. She did not return phone calls from the AP seeking comment Monday.
Attorney Mario Massillamany, who is representing one of the dozens of people who were injured, said he would like to ask Rollens if fair officials had in fact asked to delay the concert and if she had relayed that information to the band.
“The biggest thing is we got those reports, which have a timeline of what people said, and it appears that it’s different than what Kristian and Jennifer are saying in their depositions,” Massillamany said.
“We know there are inconsistencies,” he said. “We just don’t know which version of events is most accurate.”
Rollens has not yet been deposed, Allen said.
“I think the plot will thicken on the part of Hellen Rollens, but I think at the end of the day, she’s an employee,” Allen said. “The band had the ultimate authority to say we’re not performing, and Kristian Bush admitted as much.”
Rollens’ attorney, Kevin Kearney, did not return a phone call seeking comment, and the AP was unable to locate a phone listing for Rollens in the Los Angeles area.
Mayer, Sugarland’s spokesman, said Rollens was not acting as manager on the band’s current tour but was still employed.
Mayer denied that the band was responsible.
“The decision to delay the show is typically left up to the venue,” in this case the fair, he said.
The state’s liability is limited to $5 million by state law, but state lawmakers voted in March to give an additional $6 million to the stage collapse victims.
Charles Wilson reported from Indianapolis.