Results of state investigation don't tell whole story of Notre Dame videographer's death

When a Notre Dame student videographer reported to work Oct. 27 on a day gusty enough for the National Weather Service to issue a wind advisory, he claimed video coordinator Tim Collins informed him practice would be outdoors "contrary to his judgment.''

Collins' weather concerns also seemed apparent when he kept a female worker off a hydraulic lift at the beginning of practice so as not to scare her and when he ordered two other videographers to go halfway as high as normal.

Players likely weren't in danger in those conditions. The videographers who taped their every move obviously would be.

But when an Indiana Occupational Health and Safety Administration investigator asked Collins directly if he felt the lifts shouldn't be used because of the conditions, he oddly answered, "No.''

Is Collins, a loyal Notre Dame employee for 21 years, covering for somebody? Clearly his actions displayed caution his words contradicted for reasons only he knows. He declined comment through the athletic department.

"I noticed the weather till we went out and felt we were in a safe range to use the lifts,'' Collins said, according to details included in the Indiana OSHA report the Tribune obtained Tuesday.

If you hoped the nearly five-month investigation into Declan Sullivan's death would help determine who at Notre Dame was most responsible for sending the student videographer into a scissors lift on a remarkably windy day, forget it.

Indiana OSHA fined Notre Dame $77,500 for six safety violations related to the incident. The school deserves credit for the way president Rev. John Jenkins took responsibility for Sullivan's death last fall and for announcing last week it was replacing scissors lifts with remote-controlled cameras.

But IOSHA interviews with 12 university employees, including athletic director Jack Swarbrick and football coach Brian Kelly who Notre Dame made unavailable for comment, revealed little more than a giant communication gap under the Golden Dome.

Swarbrick, for example, was asked who specifically approved usage of the scissors lift Sullivan was in 39 feet above ground when it blew over. The question the CEO of any athletic department should have expected in a formal interview with a state regulatory agency stumped the former lawyer.

"I don't (know) a specific person,'' Swarbrick said. "It is done on the administration side of the football program.''

Alas, the man in charge of that football program, Kelly, didn't shed more light on anything — other than he and Swarbrick got their stories straight about the wind that apparently wasn't. It was Swarbrick, you may recall, quoted describing the weather as "unremarkable.''

Kelly's description similarly defied logic considering Indiana OSHA's report cited wind gusts as high as 51 mph.

"It was a beautiful day,'' Kelly told the IOSHA investigator. "We were conducting a normal practice structure when a big gust hit me.''

A normal practice? Was that why the female student videographer was grounded?

Asked if he was in charge of any responsibilities involving the photographers who videotaped Irish football practices, Kelly answered no. Asked if he decides where practices are held, Kelly merely acknowledged he "relies on information from my support staff.''

If Kelly took such a hands-off role on Saturdays, he never would make a decision and Notre Dame would lead the country in delay-of-game penalties.

Besides Swarbrick and Kelly seeming vaguer than one might hope, there was the Dec. 1, 2010, letter from university lawyer Claire Aigotti to an IOSHA investigator requesting video the Notre Dame film crew had taken that day.

Aigotti said the investigator could view the video in her office but she couldn't ship it because it contained, "highly proprietary trade secret information.''

In the midst of trying to get to the bottom of what caused an avoidable fatality, Notre Dame's still worried about football opponents getting an edge?

The closest the investigation came to identifying a flash point in the decision to have practice outdoors that day came during head athletic trainer Jim Russ' interview. Russ recounted a mid-morning conversation he had that fateful day with Kelly staffer Chad Klunder, the director of football operations, after Russ noted wind gusts had registered 27 mph.

"I said, 'I assume we are going outside,' '' Russ told the investigator. "Chad responded, 'Yes, unless the weather dictates we can't.' I said, 'OK, no problem.'''

Ultimately it might be no problem for Russ. But if Notre Dame identifies mid-level scapegoats to spare Kelly and Swarbrick, Klunder and Collins look like prime candidates based on IOSHA's report.

This is a university that once fired George O'Leary for fudging his resume. If Notre Dame's independent investigation due next month doesn't recommend at least somebody losing his job after the loss of a 20-year-old's life, its findings will be dismissed as a sham.

The most honest, damning comments might have come from Sullivan himself. When he found out from assistant video coordinator Reuel Joaquin the team would be practicing outside, Sullivan wasn't happy, according to the report.

"Aw, man,'' Sullivan said. "This sucks.''

Everything about this tragedy does.

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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