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Aftermath, investigations of fatal accident recounted

Megan Doyle | Thursday, October 27, 2011

One year ago today, the day began as an ordinary Wednesday.

 

It ended with an unprecedented tragedy.

 

Junior Declan Sullivan died Oct. 27, 2010, after the scissor-lift from which he was filming football practice fell. He was a student videographer for the football team.

 

Sullivan’s accident occurred at 4:50 p.m. at LaBar Practice Fields. He was transported to Memorial Hospital in South Bend, where he later died. University President Fr. John Jenkins notified students in an email that night.

 

Hours after Sullivan’s death, the members of Fisher Hall gathered in the dorm chapel to begin to cope with the loss of a fellow member of their dorm and a friend of many.

 

Tonight, the residents of Fisher will gather again for a dorm mass at 10 p.m. in the chapel to remember Sullivan. Residents of Lewis Hall, home to Sullivan’s sister Wyn, will also attend the Mass.

 

The months following Sullivan’s death included the processes of both dealing with grief and investigating the causes of the accident.

 

The day after the tower fell, Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick announced at a press conference the weekend’s home football game against Tulsa would be dedicated to the junior’s memory.

 

That night, the Notre Dame community gathered at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart for a Mass of Remembrance. More than 1,000 students filled the church, and a crowd of 1,000 more stood outside in the night.

 

Vice President of Student Affairs Fr. Tom Doyle delivered the homily at the Mass. As he addressed the standing room only congregation, Doyle said the stories in scripture connected to Sullivan’s passion for storytelling through the lens of a camera.

 

“Declan Sullivan has told great stories. His life has been a truly great story,” Doyle said in his homily. “Declan Sullivan and Jesus Christ invite us into the greatest story, the story of Jesus Christ’s love … that we are loved and that we are never truly alone.”

 

The atmosphere at that Saturday’s game was somber. When the crowd stood for a moment of silence in Sullivan’s honor, the only sound in the Stadium was the wind whipping against the American flag.

 

During the game, the team played with shamrock decals bearing a small “DS” on their helmets, and many students wore buttons with the same symbol.

 

In a post-game press conference, Irish coach Brian Kelly took responsibility for the decision to host outdoor practice on the day of Sullivan’s death despite windy conditions.

 

“We have systems in place to make certain and that deal with issues of safety. Clearly in this instance, they failed,” Kelly said at the time.

 

Sullivan’s funeral was held Nov. 1, 2010, in his hometown of Buffalo Grove, Ill.

 

On Nov. 5, 2010, Jenkins sent an email to the student body in which he took full responsibility for Sullivan’s death.

 

“We are conducting an investigation and we must be careful not to pre-judge its results, but I will say this: Declan Sullivan was entrusted to our care, and we failed to keep him safe,” Jenkins said in the e-mail. “We at Notre Dame — and ultimately I, as President — are responsible. Words cannot express our sorrow to the Sullivan family and to all involved.”

 

Jenkins also announced the appointment of Peter Likins, former University of Arizona president, to lead an external review of Notre Dame’s investigation into Sullivan’s death.

 

While both the University and the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Association (IOSHA) investigated the accident, Notre Dame installed a remote video operating system at the football practice fields. The system was operational when the team began spring practice in March.

 

On March 15, 2011, the four-and-a-half month IOSHA investigation into Sullivan’s death came to a close.

 

IOSHA found Notre Dame guilty of six violations, and the citations resulted in fines totaling $77,500. The violations included a “knowing” violation, meaning IOSHA found the University knowingly exposed its employees to unsafe conditions. The Indiana Department of Labor reported the University was fined $55,000 for this violation.

 

IOSHA also issued five “serious” violations with fines totaling $22,500. These violations included failure to properly train student employees in how to operate a scissor lift.

 

“We found that Notre Dame did not establish and maintain conditions of work that were reasonably safe for its employees, that were free from recognized hazards that caused or were likely to cause serious injury,” Indiana Department of Labor commissioner Lori Torres said in a March 15 press conference. “In addition, by directing an untrained, student videographer to use the scissor lift during a period of time when the National Weather Service had issued an active wind advisory … the University knowingly exposed its employees to unsafe conditions.”

 

The University then entered into negotiations with IOSHA.

 

One month later, Jenkins released the University’s own report on Sullivan’s death. Based on the information in the report, he said Notre Dame was “collectively responsible” for the accident.

 

The report also identified eight recommendations for future action, including a new wind speed standard to operate lifts on campus. Jenkins said all of these recommendations would be put in place as soon as possible.

 

In July, the University reached a settlement with IOSHA. The “knowing” violation was reduced to a “serious” violation and Notre Dame agreed to pay $42,000 in fines. 

 

Jenkins also announced a campaign in conjunction with the Indiana Department of Labor to provide better safety information for those who work with aerial lifts at other universities, colleges and high schools around the country.

 

In addition to educational projects elsewhere, Notre Dame continues to remember Sullivan on campus. The University announced Wednesday in a press release it would fund an endowed scholarship in Sullivan’s name.

 

The Declan Drumm Sullivan Memorial Scholarship will assist students who are not only in financial need, but who also have demonstrated the Sullivan’s characteristics, such as an interest in filmmaking, service to under-privileged youth and creative writing.

 

The Financial Management Board, part of the Student Union, is also working to establish another scholarship in Sullivan’s name.

 

Despite the controversy surrounding the accident, the Sullivans continue to heal one year later.

 

The Sullivan family gathered Saturday before the football game against USC for a dedication of a memorial to Sullivan. A plaque, two benches and several trees sit between the Guglielmino Athletics Complex and the LaBar Practice Field.

 

At the dedication, Declan’s mother, Alison Sullivan, said the University has stood by her family throughout the past year.

 

“I wanted to thank [Jenkins] for giving us a lot of leeway with this and really letting us do what we thought would best memorialize our son and brother,” Alison said. “And [Doyle] for really helping us every inch of the way with everything from the moment of the accident through the past year.”

 

The memorial lies within sight of Sullivan’s accident one year ago.

 

“We didn’t envision anything could be more perfect,” Alison said. “I think if [Declan] could see this, he would be in awe. He would say, ‘Gee, this is amazing. I love this. It’s epic.'”