RALEIGH — After a train slammed into a Texas veterans’ parade in 2012, killing four people and injuring a dozen more, the National Transportation Safety Board urged local governments to overhaul the protections for paradegoers and participants.
Chief among its recommendations: requiring parade organizers to submit a written safety plan that includes, among its essential components, provisions for driver and vehicle screening.
The city of Raleigh, now grappling with its own parade tragedy, didn’t follow that advice.
Its special event guidelines say event organizers must turn in an emergency action plan. But nowhere in the documents relating to the intricacies of how parades are conducted in the city, is there any mention of screening drivers or vehicles.
“The city does not set safety guidelines for events of this nature,” spokeswoman Sarah Baker told The News & Observer in response to a request for documents about safety standards.
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Police have identified faulty brakes as the “proximate cause of death” for an 11-year-old dancer killed at the parade. But neither police nor fire officials inspected the vehicles or floats that participated, according to department spokesmen.
Landen Christopher Glass, a 20-year-old who previously danced with the same troupe, was charged with several misdemeanors and traffic infractions.
Glass, who is from a small community in Virginia, towed a float for CC & Co. Dance Complex with a GMC pickup that had several after-market alterations. He has a lengthy history of driving infractions, including skipped inspections, in his home state — some as recent as last month.
The investigation of what went wrong “will include a comprehensive evaluation of the city’s current guidelines and review of state safety recommendations regarding parades and special events,” spokeswoman Julia Milstead said in an email.
She earlier referred questions about vehicle and driver screening to the parade’s organizer, Shop Local Raleigh, which did not answer the N&O’s emailed questions.
“The Greater Raleigh Merchants Association team is heartbroken over the tragic events that occurred on Saturday,” Jennifer Martin, executive director of the association that runs Shop Local Raleigh, said in a statement. “We are actively assisting the Raleigh Police Department’s investigation and as such, we are not in a position to comment further at this time.”
Shop Local Raleigh submitted the required emergency action plan to the city, Milstead said, but a News & Observer request for the plan and city staff’s feedback has yet to be fulfilled.
The single page of guidelines that lays out Raleigh’s requirements for event-related emergency plans asks organizers to detail how they will respond to severe weather, medical emergencies, evacuations and any “special hazards.”
It also says plans for large-scale events must be “extensive.”
But it appears the plans were far from that.
Ira David Wood III had concerns about the parade floats and tow vehicles even before Glass lost control.
The seats on the float that Shop Local Raleigh supplied to his company, Theatre in the Park, were made of wood so spongy and unstable that performers decided they had to stand, he said.
Also, the truck that had been provided to pull the float wasn’t shiny and new as it had been in years past. It had three paint colors and what looked like an after-market lift.
Theatre in the Park was assigned the 26th position in the parade, just ahead of CC & Co. Dance Complex.
As the float made its way along the route, a TV cameraman climbed aboard to film Scrooge, played by Wood’s son.
Wood recalled the first sign that something had gone terribly wrong was when the cameraman lowered his camera and said, “Oh my God,” looking past the end of the float down Hillsborough Street.
An adult on the float told everyone to get down.
That’s when Wood, who was walking behind the float, heard a horn and what he thought were grinding gears.
He could see the driver waving out the window and yelling.
Wood and a choreographer ushered performers out of the truck’s path.
Then the theater company float, which had continued moving, started to pitch violently from side to side.
One actor nearly fell over the edge.
In the days since, Wood keeps coming back to one thought: “As tragic as it was, it could have been so much worse.”
Wood has complained to parade organizers about the quality of the floats in past years for things like rotten wood or the balance being off, leaving the float listing to the side.
“We usually put young performers, the kids, on the float, so they don’t have to walk, and then our featured performers, Scrooge and the Christmas ghosts, are always on the float,” he said. “So the safety of the float, obviously, is very important to us.”
Theatre in the Park has participated in the parade for decades.
“In the past,” he said, “when we’ve had a situation that we thought, ‘OK, you can do a little better here with the quality of the float and the safety of the float,’ we’ve let it let it be known to the people running everything.”
In past years, the parade’s organizers worked primarily with two float companies that provided drivers, said John Odom, who for many years helped plan the event. He is no longer closely involved.
The current arrangement is unclear.
The merchants’ association’s website says that it “provides floats for all float entries,” but the online application also provides an option to provide your own float, subject to the organizer’s approval.
Through a spokesperson, CC & Co. Dance Complex owner Christy Curtis did not answer questions about whether her company used its own float in the parade or rented one.
“Our focus is on supporting our CC & Company dancers and their families as they grieve and heal,” Curtis said in an emailed statement. She referred future inquiries to city and police officials.