Chicagoan killed at Ind. fair remembered

August 15, 2011 2:33:31 PM PDT
Friends mourned a Chicago woman as the Indiana State Fair reopened with a vigil Monday for the first time since a deadly stage collapse.

Five fairgoers -- including one woman from Chicago -- died in the accident Saturday night caused by stormy weather and winds that reached between 60 and 70 mph.

A somber ceremony was held Monday morning at the Indiana State Fairgrounds to honor the victims.

Christina Santiago, a 29-year-old native of the Bronx, was sitting in the front row of the audience waiting for a performance from the band Sugarland when the stage collapsed. She died from her injuries, and her spouse was injured as she tried to rescue Santiago.

Santiago worked at the Howard Brown Health Center on Chicago's North Side and was known for her role as a women's health advocate in the city's gay community. She worked at the Howard Brown Health center for the past six years.

"She was a bright star. If she were here today she would -- say if this were someone else, you know -- she would come in and she would still be doing her job. She would be thinking about what's next for the community and how to help," said Howard Brown Health Center CEO Jamal Edwards.

Edwards also said grief counselors would be available to talk one-on-one with workers at the health center to help them deal with the loss.

According to Edwards, Santiago was about to lead the way in beginning a new program to expand health services at the health center.

"She was the leader. She was the mastermind of a lot of the support services we were offering for bisexual, transgendered women. Above and beyond that, I can't think of a person that could replace what she does. I think it will take three," Edwards said.

Friends gathered at the health center over the weekend to remember the 29-year-old who worked there.

"We have lost a fierce warrior and an amazing activist," said Rosa Yadira of Amigas Latinas.

"She was a lot of fun to be around. I knew that her heart was much bigger than her body could hold," friend Debra Brown said.

Santiago had recently entered into a civil union after they became legal in Chicago with her partner of more than two years, Alisha Brennon. Brennon was seriously injured in the stage collapse. She works as a graphic designer at a law firm in Chicago's Loop specializing in foreclosures.

One witness who was standing behind the women described the horror of the sudden collapse.

"It was chaos. I just got done running and pushing my wife out of the way of stage that was coming down behind us. And it was just kind of, I think, instinct to crawl back in to help those that were screaming that were in need," David Wood said.

A woman from Northwest Indiana is also among the dead. Tammy Vandam lived in the small town of Wanatah. Her sister says she was attending the concert with a friend as a part a birthday present, and adds, "She was a wonderful mom who lived for her daughter and was looking forward to seeing her go to college next year."

At least 40 other people were injured in the stage collapse.

Sugarland posted and a statement on its website and canceled an appearance Sunday at the Iowa State Fair.

The governor of Indiana and others remembered the those who died at vigil Monday.

Indiana's lieutenant governor opened the memorial service with a prayer expressing thanks for those who rushed to help immediately after high winds toppled stage rigging.

Governor Daniels and others sat in folding chairs on the stage lined with bouquets of sunflowers while many in the audience sobbed or hugged each other.

Daniels thanked those who rushed to help immediately after Saturday's stage collapse.

"My heart is full for those people who, some from duty, but many simply from their love and personal bravery, acted in courageous ways to make sure that Saturday night was not worse than it was," the governor said.

Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman told about 500 people gathered for the service at the fairgrounds' Free Stage that the people who rushed to help "set aside their personal concerns and moved toward the accident and not away" to help the injured Saturday.

She says that selfless spirit "is and will continue to be the silver lining in times of disaster."

As the community continues to grieve, there are questions about how officials reacted as the storm was approaching the fair.

State police say fair organizers monitored the coming storm and started preparing in case they needed to evacuate the area, but officials insist no one could have predicted the tragedy.

Fans who attended the concert were not so sure.

"[There] should have been a warning the storm was coming. You could tell off to the left the sky was getting really dark," witness Jay Keiser said.

Although the Indiana State Fair reopened Monday, all concerts are being moved to other venues.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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