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Investigation begins in death of Notre Dame student filming football practice

Officials at the scene of Declan Sullivan's accident Wednesday night. (AP)

The death of a Notre Dame junior who fell from a tower while filming football practice is being investigated by Indiana's workplace safety agency.

declan.jpgDeclan Sullivan, a 20-year-old from Long Grove, Ill., died Wednesday at a South Bend, Ind., hospital after the scissor lift holding him aloft fell in winds gusting to over 50 mph. He tweeted before practice: "Gusts of wind up to 60 mph well today will be fun at work... I guess I've lived long enough. :-/ " and at 3:06 p.m.: "Holy [expletive] holy [expletive] this is terrifying." The accident occurred at about 3:50 p.m. CDT.

Marc Lotter, a spokesman for the Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration, said the agency has classified the student's death a workplace fatality and has an investigator on the scene.

Jack Swarbrick, Notre Dame's athletic director, offered few answers in a press conference Thursday afternoon. "There is a lot to learn here, we will learn it all, we will learn it in an expeditious manner," he said. This is a time of extraordinary sorrow and grief. As a father of four with two of my children away at college, I can only imagine how difficult this is."

IOSHA will investigate whether the tower was being operated properly and whether it should have been used considering that winds were gusting at 51 mph. South Bend was under a wind advisory until 9 p.m. and, although it is not known which manufacturer built the lift, manuals for similar models say they should not be used when winds are stronger than 25 mph. The hydraulic lift, when extended, reaches just higher than a football goalpost.

The lift crumpled a fence and bushes as it fell in a gust, landing in the middle of a road. Football practice reportedly continued for about another 30 minutes.

Swarbrick, who said he was present at the time, said the weather was "normal" until the gust blew gear around the field. He said he heard a crash and saw the lift lying on the adjacent street.

During his news conference, Swarbrick was asked what regulations were in place and answered: "We want to make sure we understand what they were, how they were implemented, who was involved." He was asked who was responsible for practice and deciding whether to use the lifts and said, "People are being interviewed and asked those questions."

Sullivan's parents met with Notre Dame officials Thursday morning. "We'll be asking those questions, too," Sullivan's uncle, Mike Miley, said. "But right now, we're grieving a loss."

Sullivan is survived by his parents, a brother in high school and a sister who also attends Notre Dame, according to Miley.

Notre Dame officials have decided to play their game Saturday against Tulsa, but a pep rally has been canceled. Members of the football team will wear decals honoring Sullivan on their helmets and there will be a moment of silence.

By Cindy Boren  | October 28, 2010; 2:46 PM ET
Categories:  College football  
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Terrible, awful tragedy- but completely preventable. The team had practiced indoors due to heavy winds the day before. It appears that the Notre Dame Athletic Director was on the practice field at the time the tower blew over. That, and the fact he is a lawyer, might be very problematic for the school. According to the South Bend Tribune, they still can't determine who made the decision to use the tower under those conditions. That should raise further questions for the school to answer.

Posted by: shogun_5 | October 28, 2010 4:24 PM | Report abuse

I find it rather unconscionable that they continued the practice for 30 minutes after this occurred.

Posted by: behemoth98 | October 28, 2010 4:37 PM | Report abuse

The weather was not "normal". I don't know why he keeps saying that. The winds were fierce all day long, and the previous day, having had tornado warnings all day. There were high wind warnings out all day long.

Posted by: lkb_42 | October 28, 2010 5:26 PM | Report abuse

As behemoth98 says, I find it more than "rather unconscionable" that they continued to practice for 30 minutes, and I find it beyond all reason that they're going ahead with the game on Saturday.

I gotta say, that AD sounds like a tool. He's so busy covering his and the school's butt, he could be a pair of tighty-whiteys.

Posted by: 7900rmc | October 28, 2010 6:12 PM | Report abuse

Ifind it rather unconscionable that they continued the practice for 30 minutes after this occurred.

Posted by: behemoth98

Wrong. That is an urban legend that will spring up out of this case. The team stood around on the practice field for 20-30 minutes before being directed to go to the locker room.

Try reading the South Bend media reports before making stupid statements.

Posted by: MKadyman | October 28, 2010 6:14 PM | Report abuse

MKadyman: Perhaps a more polite way to respond or make a correction should be considered. It seems the Internet is making people more rude and aggressive since they are anonymous and not face to face. It does not matter what others may write. Don't let that affect the way you act.

Posted by: Aqua2 | October 28, 2010 8:15 PM | Report abuse

I was not at the practice field, but I was on campus. I'd left campus twice prior to the accident, and both times it was evident the winds were excessively strong. No question there.

Do I think anyone consciously thought about the wind in relation to the lifts and sent the video crew up anyway? No. Could it have been avoided? Definitely. There were periods of calm that made it seem the wind was done.

Obviously, a student should NEVER be put in a position to have to say they're uncomfortable. Someone should have stepped up and told the video crew not to even consider going up in the lifts. That didn't happen, but I find it very hard to believe it was an intended decision. Our first responsibility is to take care of our students and we take that responsibility very seriously.

We can all see it very clearly in hindsight, but we weren't there making the decisions. If it comes to light that something negligent went on, I'll be at the front of the line of accusers. Right now, I think it was a tragic chain of miscommunication and misfortune.

I truly hope this was just a fluke accident and that there isn't someone who looked at the situation, knowing the conditions, and said, "Screw the wind. We need video of this practice."

As a parent, I cannot even imagine what Declan's parents are going through, and my heart and prayers go out to them.

Posted by: bikkley | October 28, 2010 8:33 PM | Report abuse

I assume the person in the lift also operates it, eg. raises and lowers. Is that correct??

Posted by: Carlpaguy | October 28, 2010 8:52 PM | Report abuse

Yo WaPo - Carlpaguy's question is on target...the person in the lift also controls it, yes? The same guy that tweeted that he was terrified? So he knew he was in danger but stayed on anyhow....why? Why take so much risk to film a football practice from a particular vantage point?

Posted by: JoeOvercoat | October 29, 2010 7:34 AM | Report abuse

Your angry comment is misdirected. You should criticize the Post for reporting it if you believe it untrue rather than me for commenting on it.

Posted by: behemoth98 | October 29, 2010 4:01 PM | Report abuse

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