Sa, 2.12.2023

Death lurking at summer events

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Photo: Erakogu

In Estonia, outdoor stage platforms for summer events are erected in the hope that nothing happens. Builders say rules and supervision are totally lacking. A narrow circle of stage makers are fearful that a grander repeat of the Tartu trampoline tragedy is just a matter of time.

«It is in the fantasy realm, really, what’s happening in Estonia. Feels like the people are not thinking at all!» says Jüri-Ott Karemäe (33), ten years in erecting stages and tents under his belt.

Mr Karemäe, among other things erected of the giant Jazzkaar concert tent, might seem to be an unlikely lecturer – if it were not so serious.

According to Mr Karemäe, 10–15 companies are erecting stage platforms in Estonia. Only a few have certificates for platforms and staff. Meanwhile, lots of players provide services with «platform-like products», with untrained people hired – like schoolchildren earning some holiday money.  

Beholding what they come up with is not for those with weak nerves. Often, the performers and audience will never know that the entire contraption under and above them was life-threatening.  

«On countless occasions, I have seen with mine own eyes how there were no diagonals at all underneath the platform floor. But if they do gospel show or kids are singing, they are all jumping in resonance,» says Mr Karemäe. From the side, I have seen people holding their breath that the platform holds for five more minutes till the group gets done.»

Just a short while ago, Mr Karemäe helped dismantle a construction under which parties had been held all winter long. «They had seven chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, some two dozen kilograms each. Of these, six were fastened with a plastic clip. As is meant for cables! This falls on your head, you are dead on the spot.»

Now, conscientious stage makers have set up several Facebook communes with dozens of pictures of structures dangerous to life – from spotlights fastened to ceiling with tape to platforms wavering of wooden blocks. It all happens in our clubs and open air events. Often, the bad job is done by professional companies – now blacklisted by colleagues.

The love of money

How can this be? «All we have are these 20 weekends to make money. To get the client’s money, they do not want to say no and something will be erected,» thinks Mr Karemäe.

And naturally the customer takes lower price.  The life-threatening structures emerge as, to save money, stage and floor might be hired by differing manufacturers. «Once you did something otherwise, you cannot follow the manual any more.» So they will improvise. With a platform, three elements are critical: stage structure, heavy lights and sound equipment hanging above, and electricity cables. And you guessed it. The main threat is wind.  

«Often, clients have no money to order a bigger platform. To make room for bands and equipment, the prescribed diagonals are omitted. But that’s what makes the platform weak – already, it does not take wind or weight,» says Eventech light technician Rauno Kängänen, with a decade of experience.

He says it is pure luck that in Estonia stormy winds have taken no lives at public events.

On August 8th 2010., Mr Kängänen and two colleagues were on top of Sonisphere festival platform in Pori, Finland, to haul up new equipment. Suddenly, a whirlwind hit, destroying B-stage and some tents flew into the audience. 40 were injured, one died of injuries. Till today, YouTube abounds with videos featuring «Sonisphere killer storm». Mr Kängänen is convinced he is alive thanks to Latvians who had built a decent main stage.

«I don’t mean to be mean, but we have no stage company in Estonia. Some are providing a service, and of these a couple are about to get it. But these others …» Mr Kängänen opts not to finish the sentence.

Unknown to many, Estonia has had its life-threatening situations. Last summer, a giant LED-screen fell and broke onto Bad Boys Blue concert stage in Põltsamaa, just before the concert.  

In July 2007, thousands had to wait for hours to get into an Aerosmith concert on A. Le Coq Arena. Allegedly, the team of the band demanded securing the platform due to strong wind.  

«Let me assure you, the weather was fine indeed. The band just refused to get on that platform. The ceiling and the floor were not safe at all. Finally, we helped tie to platform to the very posts of A. Le Coq Arena,» recalls Mr Kängänen.

Mr Karemäe agrees. «I have said it before. Estonia is yet to have its big accident. Until it happens, nobody pays attention.»

Blame the builder

The parallel with the trampoline carried off by wind and taking the lives of two children on July 5th last year in Tartu is not arbitrary. Turns out, for 25 years the law lets stage makers off the hook just like that – safety of platforms is not checked by local governments, Technical Regulatory Authority (TJA) nor Consumer Protection Board. With luck, the builder is responsible.

Tartu city government says builder of stage or organiser of event is responsible. The city has no inspectors.

Tallinn culture department says that in procurements related to events ordered by city, erecter of stage needs to have the certificate. They need to present draft plan of stage, drawing of location, and evacuation paths. In some instances, city officials go and check the platforms. «Overall, Rescue Board inspects the activities,» said a department head.

Not quite. Rescue Board says they do ratify documents for public events but often that’s all. On location, the organisers need to do the inspection. And even when Rescue Board does show up, they only inspect the fire safety aspects, not the structures.