American rock veterans Cheap Trick were belting out their 1985 hit Tonight It’s You when, 20 minutes into their set on closing night at Ottawa’s Bluesfest, the sky blackened and the wind whipped debris across the festival site at LeBreton Flats.
It was Sunday, July 17, 2011. Festival organizers had watched the weather closely and were preparing for the possibility of a thunderstorm, but they did not expect what was to come.
Winds gusting up to 96 km/h suddenly filled the vinyl walls of the festival’s mainstage like sails, causing the steel and aluminum structure to buckle and bend.
“It just kind of creaked and groaned and then you heard rivets popping,” the band’s manager David Frey later told CBC.
Musicians and stage crew ran for their lives as the enormous structure caved in on itself with a deafening crash.
“In less than 10 seconds it was gone,” said concertgoer Leanne Wilson. “I was stunned. I’d never seen anything like that before at a concert.”
People scramble to safety seconds after the collapse. (Adam Dietrich/Canadian Press)
It was probably a miracle that no one died in the collapse. Four people were injured, including the band’s truck driver Sandy Sanderson, whose abdomen was pierced by falling debris. He and the others were quickly released from hospital.
Environment Canada later blamed the incident on a suspected downburst, a strong earthward current of air that can occur during a thunderstorm, particularly in hot, humid conditions. On the ground, the impact can be similar to that of a tornado.
Bluesfest executive director Mark Monahan walks away after speaking with the media on July 18, 2011, the day after the collapse. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
Bluesfest’s executive director Mark Monahan said organizers had done their best to prepare for the worst, but called the storm a “freak situation.”
“Some of these circumstances you can’t plan for,” agreed Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson, who had been standing on the mainstage 20 minutes before it crashed down.
Emergency crews survey the damage behind the stage. Of the four people hurt in the collapse, Sandy Sanderson, a truck driver for Cheap Trick, was the most seriously injured. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)
Groupe Berger, the company that provided the stage, later said the structure was built to withstand 80 km/h winds with the wind walls in place, and even stronger gusts with the walls detached. That night, the storm hit so suddenly there had not been time to detach them.
Cheap Trick later filed a $1-million lawsuit against Bluesfest, lighting company Project X Productions, and Groupe Berger. Frye and three others who were backstage that night filed their own lawsuits totalling another $8 million.
The following year, a Ministry of Labour report concluded the stage had been improperly built.
Rick Nielsen, lead guitarist for Cheap Trick, surveys the wreckage. (Leon Switzer/Canadian Press)
Though much was made at the time about the band’s alleged refusal to ever play Ottawa again, Cheap Trick performed at the Carp Fair in September 2012, a little over one year later. That show took place indoors.