Probe of student’s death contradicts ND’s story
INDIANAPOLIS — Despite insisting the weather was uneventful — even beautiful — the day Declan Sullivan toppled to his death last fall while filming football practice, members of the University of Notre Dame athletic department worried about the safety of another student videographer and initially kept her from going up in a lift because of stiff winds, newly released records show.
The football staff also ordered the hydraulic lifts used by videographers to be elevated only partially because of those same concerns, according to documents obtained Tuesday from the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Sullivan, a 20-year-old student videographer from north suburban Long Grove, died Oct. 27 after the lift he was on blew over. He had voiced his objections about filming outside to a team staffer shortly before going onto the practice field, records show.
Indiana OSHA, which examines workplace deaths, released the documents after a nearly five-month investigation. The agency fined the university $77,500 — the largest financial penalty levied against a school in the state in at least five years — for violations that included directing an untrained student employee to use a scissor lift during dangerous weather conditions and failing to properly maintain and inspect the equipment.
With nearly 500 pages of documents, the investigative file paints the clearest picture yet of the events and decisions leading up to the fatal accident.
The state safety investigator made 10 visits to the South Bend campus to take pictures and measurements and to conduct interviews with students and university officials, including head football coach Brian Kelly and athletic director Jack Swarbrick.
Sullivan was working for the school’s athletic department when he went up in an aerial scissor lift to record the team’s practice. Before heading to his job, which paid $7.80 an hour and offered a role with one of college football’s most storied programs, he expressed his fears on social media sites about using the lift amid the wind advisory that day.
“Gust of wind up to 60mph ... I guess I’ve lived long enough,” he tweeted after learning that practice would be held outside.
He also expressed his displeasure to a member of the football staff.
“Aw, man, this sucks,” he said after learning about the outdoors assignment, according to the report.
While the National Weather Service had issued a wind advisory for the day with gusts as high as 60 mph, Kelly and several members of his staff told an OSHA investigator that they did not find the weather to be out of the ordinary.
“It was a beautiful day,” the investigator quoted Kelly as saying. “It was 68 degrees and I remember looking up 11:54 a.m. and the wind was 22 miles per hour.”
Sullivan’s supervisor, video system technician Tim Collins, said he believed it was safe to use the lifts because weather.com and the weather service had the wind speeds in the mid-20s with gusts from 29 to 31 mph.
But according to OSHA, the weather service had warned of sustained winds between 25 to 35 miles per hour around the time of the practice. The lift’s manufacturer warns against the equipment being used in winds stronger than 28 mph.
“The evidence overwhelmingly demonstrated that the university made a decision to utilize its scissor lifts in known adverse weather conditions,” said Indiana Department of Labor Commissioner Lori Torres, who oversees the state OSHA office.
Through an athletic department spokesman, Collins declined to comment Tuesday on the OSHA report. He told state investigators that Sullivan did not express reservations about the lifts to him.
Collins did, however, order that the lifts be only partially extended, records show. He also decided not to let a novice student videographer go up in the lift because he thought she might become scared, though she eventually was sent up.
That student, Courtney Haddick, told investigators that she and others joked about the wind before practice.
“They gave us our assignments and told us we would be outside.” Haddick is quoted as saying. “We went to the video library and got our camera and stuff. There was a little joking about how windy it was.”
Michael Frank, another student videographer, said Collins instructed him not to fully raise his lift, records show.
“When I walked into the office, I was informed by Tim Collins that we would be practicing outside, contrary to his judgment,” Frank told the investigator. “When we were outside, I was instructed by Tim to only raise my lift halfway up.”
As he raised his lift, Frank said he radioed Collins and asked about his lift’s height. “I told him that the lift was not swaying and I was comfortable going higher,” Frank said. “He told me to go no higher than the top of the goal posts and to stop wherever I felt comfortable.”
Sullivan raised his lift to about 39 feet, just short of its full extension, records show. The OSHA investigation found the student videographers had minimal training on the equipment.
“They knew how to go up and they knew how to go down,” Torres said.
Kelly told the investigator that it was a normal practice before the wind gust hit, but videos taken by Sullivan and others show coaches’ jackets and pants “blowing and whipping” in the wind and the goal posts moving, according to the state investigator.
The university allowed OSHA to view the team’s practice footage, but it did not turn over the tapes because school lawyers said it contained “highly proprietary, trade secret information related to the business of college sports,” documents show.
According to Kelly’s account, weather conditions remained normal until “a big gust of wind hit me.” Swarbrick described the same gust in his interview, saying Gatorade bottles, footballs and clothing started flying around the field.
After learning that Sullivan’s lift had collapsed, Kelly ordered his team to keep practicing so that players would not crowd the accident scene, according to the investigative records. Kelly said he went to the site and saw that the team’s trainers were giving medical care to Sullivan.
“I called our team together and informed them of the accident,” Kelly said. “We prayed and I dismissed the team.”
Notre Dame is conducting its own investigation of the accident and plans to release those findings to the public.
“Declan was a wonderful member of our football family and is missed to this day,” Kelly said in a statement issued Tuesday. “We all continue to both grieve and keep his family and friends in our thoughts and prayers. I’m sure the university will use the findings from the state to enhance the investigation into this tragedy.”
Sullivan’s family said they hope OSHA’s investigation will encourage college athletic programs to rethink their safety protocols. Notre Dame announced last week that it has banned the use of hydraulic lifts to film practices and has begun construction of a remote-controlled camera system.
“It was an accident, and there was a failure somewhere. As to the whys and hows, it really doesn’t matter. We still lost Declan,” said his uncle Mike Miley, the family’s spokesman. “We can’t change the past; all we can do is help others avoid similar tragedies.”
In the wake of Sullivan’s death, Notre Dame officials came under fire for failing to take responsibility for the incident. Swarbrick drew particular criticism for describing the weather conditions before the tragedy as “unremarkable” despite the fact that Sullivan’s own Twitter feed indicated that he was terrified as gusts swirled about him during practice.
The Rev. John Jenkins, president of Notre Dame, later took responsibility for Sullivan’s death in an apology e-mailed to university students and alumni. He reiterated those feelings Tuesday after OSHA released its report.
“None of these findings can do anything to replace the loss of a young man with boundless energy and creativity,” Jenkins said. “As I said last fall, we failed to keep him safe, and for that we remain profoundly sorry.”
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