RedEye

Notre Dame must wise up: Everybody involved in Sullivan tragedy acted with a disregard for safety

In death, as on the final day of his life, Declan Sullivan's voice again was ignored by those at Notre Dame entrusted to listen.

On Page 39 of the university's so-called independent investigation into the scissors-lift accident Oct. 27 that killed the student videographer from Long Grove, Ill., it states "Notre Dame cannot conclusively determine whether Declan, himself, felt unsafe."

Really? Nearly six months later and we're still waiting for those responsible for an avoidable tragedy to get a clue.

"We did not find any individual who disregarded safety or was indifferent to safety. Consequently, there was not any individual discipline," the Rev. John Jenkins, Notre Dame's president, said at a news conference Monday on campus. "Our conclusion is that it's a collective responsibility."

Sorry, when a student falls to an accidental death on the job while employed and enrolled at a university that claims to live by a higher standard, saying we're sorry doesn't cut it. Nothing will bring Sullivan back, but replacing scissors lifts with remote-controlled cameras falls short of a satisfactory response.

It's unfathomable that Sullivan can lose his life because of a stunning lack of common sense and nobody in charge of his welfare loses a job or income as a result of disciplinary action.

"Insofar as the president is responsible for the university as a whole, I am the individual who bears the most responsibility, and I accept that," Jenkins said.

That's noble as the head of the university, but it was empty rhetoric. Jenkins and athletic director Jack Swarbrick did not resign, and neither did anyone else. Nobody got reassigned, fined or suspended. Heck, former head athletic trainer Jim Russ got a new title with more responsibility in January.

Claiming "collective responsibility" without consequences for anybody involved sounds like a lawyered-up cop-out. That's like rehiring a babysitter who let your kid burn himself playing with fire because the sitter claimed not to know how hot the flame was.

The most egregious part of the dissatisfying 145-page report? It suggests when Sullivan tweeted, "Gust of wind up to 60 mph today ... I guess I've lived long enough," minutes before a 53 mph gust blew the lift over, it reflected his joking nature, according to friends. And presumably it was Sullivan's sense of humor, not foreboding, that provoked him to tweet, "Holy (expletive), this is terrifying."

Even if you accept those assumptions, there is nothing laughable about a 20-year-old knowing the specifics of dangerous wind warnings better than the people paid to know them and act accordingly.

Sullivan checked the website weather.gov right before practice and became aware of local wind warnings indicating the possibility of gusts up to 60 mph. Russ and Tim Collins, director of football video and film, didn't consult National Weather Service data after 2:46 p.m. — an hour before practice started — when gusts only up to 30 mph were reported.

Eight minutes later at 2:54 p.m., the updated data neither Russ nor Collins bothered to check reported gusts up to 38 mph — above Notre Dame's internal limit of 35 mph that forces practice indoors or bans use of the lifts.

Ultimately, the biggest decision was made in the morning when coach Brian Kelly notified director of football operations Chad Klunder that practice would be outside. Klunder informed Russ and, in a hierarchical Notre Dame football culture the report also absolved, nobody questions the boss.

Yet Russ, it's pointed out, possessed authority "to unilaterally take corrective action if conditions are unsafe." He did so once during a spring practice storm in 2010.

So why didn't Russ Oct. 27? Why didn't he or Collins get updated weather data in the final hour before practice? Could all of this been solved by a weather app on a smartphone?

All that goes unanswered, and probably unasked by Peter Likins, the engineer and former University of Arizona president who led a toothless, bureaucratic review billed as independent that reads more like it was conducted in the Monogram Room. On Page 21, for example, it reports, "Though windy, practice attendees do not recall the conditions as out of the ordinary."

Then their memories are cleaner than their consciences. If conditions were so ordinary at the beginning of practice, why did Collins keep a female videographer off a lift so as not to scare her, as the Indiana OSHA reported last month? Why did Collins tell another student videographer practice would be outdoors "contrary to his judgment"? Why did an air-traffic controller at South Bend Regional Airport 4 miles away divert planes from landing due to the wind?

A month after IOSHA concluded Notre Dame knowingly put its employees in an unsafe situation by failing to heed weather warnings, the university wants everyone to blame an "extraordinarily strong wind gust" nobody saw coming.

That insults our intelligence. Nobody acted with a disregard for safety? Everybody involved in this tragedy acted with a disregard for safety, unintentionally or not.

Except for Sullivan himself. And his last words still aren't being taken seriously.

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