Safety review planned after lightening fatality at Pocono

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LONG POND, Pa. — The NASCAR fan killed by a lightning strike at a track in northeastern Pennsylvania was a 41-year-old man from a nearby county, authorities said Monday.

Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa., has spacious areas where fans camp and tailgate. It is up to track officials to tell people about emergencies and severe weather.  MEL EVANS/ASSOCIATED PRESS
MEL EVANS/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Pocono Raceway in Long Pond, Pa., has spacious areas where fans camp and tailgate. It is up to track officials to tell people about emergencies and severe weather.

Brian Zimmerman, of Moosic, Pa., died as he stood near his car in the parking lot of Pocono Raceway, according to the Monroe County coroner. A woman who answered the phone at Zimmerman’s home declined comment.

Nine other people were injured during Sunday’s violent storm, though it wasn’t immediately clear how many might have been struck by lightning. One who had been listed Sunday night in critical condition was upgraded to stable.

The crowd of about 85,000 was advised over public address systems and through social media to take cover Sunday afternoon when lightning and heavy rain hit the track near the end of the race. But some fans posted on the raceway’s Facebook page that they never heard the announcements.

NASCAR spokesman Dave Higdon said Monday that officials are reviewing how the track carried out its emergency procedures. He cautioned against rushing to judgment.

“Anytime something like this happens, we make sure we look at it again and see if there’s anything we should have done different,” he said.

Pocono Raceway president and CEO Brandon Igdalsky expressed sorrow at a news conference Monday at the track, where a large U.S. flag flew at half-staff.

“Fans are like family to us,” Igdalsky said, adding that Zimmerman had been coming to races for several years with his friends. He said that he planned to contact Zimmerman’s family and visit other victims.

Pocono officials are going through log books to establish a timeline for the storm, weather warnings and final laps of the shortened race, Igdalsky said.

One bolt hit the grandstand parking area around 5 p.m. Sunday, killing Zimmerman and injuring eight others, Igdalsky said. A second possible strike came around 6:35 p.m., sending a ninth person to the hospital, he said.

Brian Mattson, of Greentown, Pa., said he and friend Tom Deacher had just gotten into their truck to leave the track when they saw the first bolt hit about two car rows in front of them. Mattson said sparks flew “like a Roman candle” after the lightning hit a tailgating canopy next to a car.

“When the tent collapsed, I knew it wasn’t right,” said Deacher, of Mayfield, Pa.

Communicating incoming weather is often a challenge for officials at tracks throughout the country. Most such facilities – especially the 2.5-mile Pocono Raceway – are massive, with fans spread among grandstand seating and a spacious infield where fans camp and tailgate.

NASCAR stays in contact with track officials when weather might affect a race, but it’s the responsibility of track of­ficials to communicate with fans about advisories or storms approaching.
Decisions about proceeding with a race are typically made minute-by-minute, although there have been instances the last several years when NASCAR worked with track officials in advance of incoming weather in the interest of fan safety.

The decision to postpone a 2008 race at Richmond was made a day before the scheduled start because Tropical Storm Hanna was moving toward Virginia.

In 2010, all track activity at Talladega Superspeedway was canceled because of extended periods of severe weather. Track officials made the decision based on advice from the Talladega County Emergency Management Agency and the National Weather Service, which warned of potential tornadoes.

This season, the Daytona 500 was postponed for the first time in its 54-year history.

That’s one of the problems NASCAR has when rain does threaten an event: Fans feel cheated if they don’t see a full race, and NASCAR’s first priority is usually to try to wait out a storm in order to complete all the scheduled laps.

Ed Klima, the director of emergency services at Dover International Speedway in Delaware, said that while “the facility is ultimately responsible for the fans’ safety … it’s obviously very difficult to get people to leave if there’s still cars going around the racetrack.”

He also noted that racetracks are not built like NFL stadiums, which have concourses where fans can gather during inclement weather.

NASCAR’s been known to wait hours to attempt to finish a race, and in 2009 they brought teams back the next day to finish the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

There have been 19 lightning fatalities nationally so far this year, which is about average, according to John Jensenius, a lightning safety specialist with the National Weather Service.

“There is simply no safe place outside,” said Jensenius.

The deaths have occurred while people were playing soccer, fishing, doing yard work, picking berries and simply at outdoor gatherings.

While not specifically addressing the strike at Pocono, Jensenius said that “typically in parking lots, we see lightning strike poles and then spreading out along the ground.”


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