Even with dozens of safety measures in place, experts say there’s no way to foolproof a ballpark or arena against falls like the one that killed a Braves fan at a game in Atlanta.
Ronald Homer fell 85 feet to his death Monday night after tumbling over a fourth-level railing at Turner Field. Though police said the 30-year-old’s death appeared to be an accident, it was one of more than two dozen cases of fans falling at stadiums since 2003, according to the Institute for the Study of Sports Incidents.
Three of the falls occurred within the last year alone in Atlanta, at Turner Field and the Georgia Dome. But that doesn’t mean something is wrong with the Atlanta stadiums, said Alana Penza, director of the institute, which is part of the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security.
“The reality of it is, Turner Field has had two major incidents in the past five years,” Penza said. “When it results in a death, it always makes you look at change. ... But it’s also, in the simplest terms, an accident often.”
Though teams and municipalities can build stadiums in the design of their choosing, all must meet strict safety guidelines. The International Building Code is the industry standard, adopted in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. It calls for railings in front of seats to be a minimum of 26 inches. Protective railings in open-sided areas, such as concourses on the outer edges of stadiums, have a minimum height requirement of 42 inches.
An Associated Press reporter on Tuesday measured the guard rail of the smoking platform where Homer stood before he fell, and it was 42 inches. That would reach the top of the stomach on a 6-foot man. Homer was 6-foot-6.
“Was it adequate? Certainly,” said Steve Adelman, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based attorney who is considered an authority on venue safety and security. “The venue has a legal duty to erect and maintain railings that are high enough to keep people reasonably safe, given their reasonably foreseeable conduct at the venue. ... Because it’s not very common to be standing at a railing nowhere near the playing field and, for some reason, lean over and fall – there is no other instance of it happening in the last 20 years – the venue doesn’t have a legal duty to create safety mechanisms to prevent something which doesn’t happen.”
At Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Texas, the guard rails in front of the left-field seats were 34 inches, well above building requirements. Yet that didn’t prevent firefighter Shannon Stone’s fatal fall in July 2011, when he reached out to catch a ball tossed his way by then-Texas outfielder Josh Hamilton.
After Stone’s fall, the Rangers raised all front-row railings that were above field level to at least 42 inches, with some being raised by more than a foot. The new raised railings in the $1.1 million project included beveled tops and leaned slightly inward, making it safer for fans in front-row seats throughout the stadium.
“This is going to sound so obvious: Be careful. Be aware of your limitations. Be aware of the space around you,” Adelman said.
Steven Davidson, who was taking in a Yankees game Tuesday, agreed.
“You wouldn’t lean too far over the Grand Canyon or over Niagara Falls,” he said. “So why do it at a sporting event?”