Weather warning debate abuzz
LONG POND, Pa. – Brian Mattson and Tom Deacher climbed into their truck and got set to leave saturated Pocono Raceway. That’s when the lightning bolt hit a tent canopy just a couple of rows away from where they parked.
The NASCAR fans jumped out, found two men on the ground and tried to administer CPR until paramedics arrived.
“When the tent collapsed, I knew it wasn’t right,” Deacher said.
The lightning strike was one of two that hit just outside the track Sunday during a confusing and tragic end to a shortened day of racing. One of the bolts killed 41-year-old Brian Zimmerman, and nine others were injured.
A day later, Pocono officials said they warned the crowd of 85,000 several times over the public address system and social media to take cover when the weather turned nasty – even as stock cars continued to race.
Some fans insisted there was no warning, others saying it came too late.
NASCAR spokesman Dave Higdon said Monday that officials are reviewing how the track carried out its emergency procedures.
“Any time something like this happens, we make sure we look at it again and see if there’s anything we should have done different,” Higdon said. “It’s never a good day when someone passes and people are hurt.”
A severe storm warning was issued for the area at 3:12 p.m. and NASCAR called the race at 3:54 p.m.
Igdalsky will review how many warnings the track issued to fans over that time.
“We’re trying to figure out exactly when those [warnings] happened,” he said. “Some fans are saying they heard it early. Some are saying they didn’t hear it early. So we’re going through all our logs and records to see when that went through.”
But some wonder if NASCAR should have halted the race if it knew lightning and thunderstorms were approaching, even if the track was still dry.
That responsibility ultimately rests with the tracks, Higdon said.
“They need to ensure the safety of the fans up to our expectations for them,” he said. “We need to ensure the safety of the competitors and those who are part of the traveling team that goes to each track.”
Higdon said he was confident Pocono officials had taken the appropriate steps.
One bolt hit the grandstand parking area around 4 p.m., killing Zimmerman and injuring eight others, Igdalsky said. A second possible strike came around 5:35 p.m., sending a ninth person to the hospital with minor injuries, he said.
Igdalsky expressed sorrow at a news conference Monday afternoon at the track, where a large U.S. flag flew at half-staff.
“Fans are like family to us,” Igdalsky said, noting that Zimmerman had been coming to races for several years with his friends. He added that he planned to contact Zimmerman’s family and visit other victims.
Ed Klima, director of emergency services at Dover International Speedway in Delaware, said that while “the facility is ultimately responsible for the fans’ safety ... it’s obviously very difficult to get people to leave if there’s still cars going around the racetrack.”
“People still have to take ownership of their actions,” Klima said. “We can clear the grandstands, we can institute our severe weather plan, and then people can still choose not to follow it.”
Associated Press writers Jenna Fryer in London, Kevin Begos in Pittsburgh and Kathy Matheson in Philadelphia contributed to this report.