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Swarbrick recounts atmosphere during accident

Madeline Buckley | Thursday, October 28, 2010

Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick entered the football practice field at about 4:47 p.m. Wednesday, and witnessed two completed passes. He said practice seemed normal, until he felt a powerful gust of wind, and saw objects that had formerly been stationary fly past him.

“It was an unremarkable journey in the sense that practice was normal and plays were being conducted with no difficulty,” he said.

Shortly after, Swarbrick felt the wind speed up and heard a crash.

He described the minutes preceding Declan Sullivan’s death from his perspective in a press conference Thursday, where he told reporters the University is launching a full investigation into the video tower accident that caused the Notre Dame junior’s death.

Swarbrick declined to answer questions about the possible effect of the day’s weather conditions on the accident until the investigation is completed. Winds reportedly reached 50 miles per hour when Sullivan, who was videotaping the football practice for the University, was on the scissor lift that collapsed.

“There is a lot to learn here, and we will learn it all,” he said. “I know there’s a lot of speculation about what may or may not have happened, but that’s what the investigation is for.”

Swarbrick also declined to comment on which channels of authority authorized an outdoor practice and who was responsible for clearing the videographers to tape practice from the tower.

“It’s not one decision. There are multiple decisions made,” he said. “It’s not a decision to go outside. It’s a host of decisions relevant to ‘Do you go outside?'”

The Notre Dame Security Police (NDSP) and a contracted accident reconstruction team are investigating the accident. The Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration (IOSHA) also launched an investigation. The state investigates all workplace fatalities, an IOSHA official said.

As Swarbrick walked through the north end of the west field of the LaBar Practice Complex, he said he saw items like towels and Gatorade containers fly by him. Officials estimate the tower fell about 4:51 p.m., he said.

“I noticed the netting on the goal posts start to bend dramatically and heard a crash,” Swarbrick said. “At first, I couldn’t orient the location of the crash.”

Emergency personnel responded quickly following the collapse of the tower, Swarbrick said. NDSP responded in three minutes, followed by the Notre Dame Fire Department and a city ambulance.

Swarbrick and head football coach Brian Kelly told players and staff members to leave the accident scene.

“Coach Kelly remained with me by Declan until the ambulance attendant had Declan up on a lift,” Swarbrick said.

Before the ambulance reached the hospital, Sullivan was no longer breathing on his own, he said.

Sullivan’s parents and younger brother came to campus Wednesday evening. His sister is a freshman at the University. Vice President for Student Affairs Fr. Tom Doyle spent the evening with the family.

During the press conference, University President Fr. John Jenkins said Sullivan was bright, energetic and dedicated.

“There is no greater sadness for a university community than the death of one of the students. There is certainly no greater sadness for a family than the loss of a son or brother,” Jenkins said. “It is with the sense of that double sadness that on behalf of the whole University, I want to express our deepest condolences.”

Swarbrick said the investigation into Sullivan’s death began immediately. In response to questions about practicing in the weather conditions and allowing the videographers to use the towers, he said each individual sports program makes its own decisions about how practice will proceed. Investigators will examine the decisions made about that specific practice leading up to the accident, he said.

Swarbrick said no information will be released until the investigation is complete. He said he expects the practice field will be restored by this weekend.

At least one other videographer was on a tower taping practice Wednesday. Swarbrick said he has witnessed past practices in which the video towers were not used, possibly because of weather concerns, most likely, lightning, he said.

The videographers are part of the broader football administration team, and they report to a video coordinator.

“We’ll let the investigation thoroughly and completely run its course. And then we’ll have the ability to really understand what happened, to learn from it and to move forward from it,” Swarbrick said.