Few answers from Notre Dame on student's fatal accident
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — No one can comprehend Declan Sullivan's death — including the university charged with finding out why the 20-year-old student was asked to videotape football practice from an elevated perch during a strong wind advisory.
University officials offered few answers Thursday when pressed about the accident and the decision to record the workout from an extended scissor lift. They sidestepped questions about Sullivan's Twitter feed, which indicated the junior from suburban Long Grove was terrified as gusts swirled about him during practice Wednesday.
His Tweet seemed at odds with the administration's account that weather conditions were "unremarkable" before the lift toppled over. National Weather Service data also appeared to contradict the conditions described by Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick.
There is a lot to learn here; we will learn it all," Swarbrick said. "We will learn it in an expeditious manner."
Swarbrick, who stopped by the practice field shortly before the accident, said he did not notice strong winds upon arriving. Though the team had worked indoors because of the weather Tuesday, Swarbrick said the squad seemed to have no problems with conditions Wednesday.
Moments later, a strong wind kicked up and sent equipment flying across the field, Swarbrick said. He saw the goal post netting start to "bend dramatically," heard a loud bang and saw the lift had blown back or collapsed, gashing a fence and line of bushes.
Sullivan initially appeared responsive to commands but stopped breathing in the ambulance, officials said. He was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at a nearby hospital.
Sullivan, a marketing and film double major, described conditions in haunting Tweets that appeared on his Facebook page just before his death.
"Gusts of wind up to 60 mph," he wrote shortly before practice. "Well today will be fun at work. I guess I've lived long enough."
He tweeted during the workout: "Holy (expletive). Holy (expletive). This is terrifying."
South Bend was under a wind advisory until 9 p.m. Wednesday, and gusts at the time of the accident reached 51 mph. The average October wind speed in South Bend is 9 mph.
Swarbrick said he read about the Tweets in media accounts but could not reconcile his experience with the one described by Sullivan or meteorologists.
"Obviously I don't have any knowledge of what motivated his postings, none of us do," Swarbrick said. "Mine is a five-minute perspective."
The messages have since been removed, but Sullivan's uncle said the family had seen the Tweets and was grappling with their horrific nature.
Sullivan's parents met with Notre Dame officials but still do not have a complete picture of what happened, said Sullivan's uncle, Mike Miley.
"We'll be asking those questions too," Miley said. "But right now, we're just trying to celebrate Declan's life and remember what was special about him."
Among the lingering questions is who opted to record the practice from the lift amid wind warnings. When fully extended, the lift reaches just a bit higher than a football goal post.
Swarbrick would not say whether he knew who made the decision to send the videographers up, instead promising it would be answered over the course of an investigation led by Indiana's Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Each athletic program makes its own decision on such practice matters, he said.
Indiana OSHA said the death has been classified a workplace fatality, and it will look into whether the lift was being operated safely, including whether it should have been used in 33-mph winds with gusts of 51 mph.
Jon Wallace, a safety consultant with Workplace Group in Chapel Hill, N.C., said he was "appalled" that the lift was used during such strong winds. Generally, he said, it's dangerous to use a lift when winds exceed 25 mph.
"Based on what I've heard, it was an accident waiting to happen," Wallace said. "I would have written guidelines (for use of the platform) and take it out of the hands of the student."
From 2003 to 2009 in Indiana, eight people were killed in falls from lifts, Marc Stoller of Indiana OSHA said.
This isn't the first time such an accident has happened on a football field. It brought back difficult memories for Cindy Diehl, who lived through a similar incident while videotaping a game at James Madison University in Virginia on Oct. 28, 1995.
A gust of wind blew over an aerial platform, causing Diehl to fall and break her tailbone, while another student broke vertebrae in his back.
"To see this happen again is just horrific," Diehl said. "I feel for the family. These lifts shouldn't be used like this."
Still, it didn't surprise Diehl that Sullivan would have gone up in the lift despite his expressed fears.
"As a 20-year-old, I'm thinking the coaches will be furious with me," she said. "As a kid, you don't want to lose your job."
As investigators attempted to reconstruct the scene, Sullivan was remembered on his college and high school campuses as an energetic and talented classmate.
An editor at The Observer, Notre Dame's student newspaper, recalled the lively music reviews Sullivan wrote. And despite his laid-back personality, he jumped at chances to interview celebrities such as Shwayze and Michael Ian Black, said Jordan Gamble, Sullivan's editor.
At the campus grotto, freshman Brian Falkenberg, of Palatine, lit a candle and offered a prayer for his fellow student and his family, including Sullivan's sister, Wyn, a freshman at Notre Dame.
"Everybody's upset," Falkenberg said. "We talked about it in a few of my classes."
At Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein, Sullivan was remembered as a student who participated in all aspects of campus life. In addition to football and volleyball, he was an honors student involved in marching band, jazz band, concert band and wind ensemble.
Sullivan's younger brother, Mac, still attends Carmel and plays for the sophomore football team.
High school friend Brad Etter said, "Declan loved being around people because he brightened everyone up."
Notre Dame canceled Friday's pep rally in light of Sullivan's death. Officials discussed postponing Saturday's game against Tulsa but decided to dedicate it to him instead. The team will wear special decals on its gold helmets in honor of the videographer, Swarbrick said.
Late Thursday, mourners, including Sullivan's family and members of the football team, filled the Basilica of the Sacred Heart and hundreds of others stood in front of the church holding candles as Mass was celebrated in his memory.
Tribune reporters Bob McCoppin and Duaa Eldeib contributed to this report.