Even with many 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, or recently, a 49ers fan in San Francisco.
In August, Ronald Homer fell 85 feet to his death 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, based at the University of Southern Mississippi.
“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.”
On Sunday, I happened again, in San Francisco. San Francisco police spokesman Gordon Shyy told the Associated Press that multiple people saw the male fan fall from the Jamestown walkway, which goes around the stadium, onto the sidewalk shortly after kickoff at 1:30 p.m. local time. Witnesses said the man appeared to be intoxicated.
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.
“It’s sad to say someone could lose their life and not yield some lesson for the rest of us, but this one is pretty close based on the initial reports,” said Steve Adelman, an attorney who is considered an authority on venue safety and security. “It’s just a tragedy.”
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 Adelman, who is based in Scottsdale, Ariz. “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.”
Most ballparks go beyond the minimum requirements, Adelman said. When the Miami Marlins were building their new ballpark, which opened in 2012, building inspectors recommended raising the height of some railings, he said.
“People don’t understand how much it takes to get a major league event off the ground,” Adelman said. “These buildings don’t go up overnight. Many, many, many people have to sign off on different aspects of a stadium that will be the centerpiece and crown jewel of a municipality. There are city building inspectors up and down who are looking at these buildings at every stage of construction.
“There is never a time when railing heights are lowered,” he added.
At Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Texas, the guard rails in front of the left-field seats were 34 inches, well above local and international 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. Stone’s accident was witnessed by his 6-year-old son.
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. (There were already 42-inch rails at the base of steps leading to first-row seats, and all along the second deck of seats high above right field in an area known as the Home Run Porch.) 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.
“We take it seriously,” Rangers general manager Jon Daniels said Tuesday. “We’ve had outside people come in and evaluate it. Obviously, we raised the railings and have done a lot to make people aware, both our employees, and our fans, but (Homer’s death) that’s tough. … That’s tough to hear.”
Even with guard rails, netting, enclosed walkways and any number of other safety measures, Adelman said the best protection for fans will always be common sense.
“This is going to sound so obvious: Be careful. Be aware of your limitations. Be aware of the space around you,” he said. “If you’re someone who doesn’t have the greatest body control, don’t go leaning over things where you could have a bad result if you fall. Watch your kid. Keep them close to you. The advice is really just be aware of your surroundings and don’t take needless risks.”
Steven Davidson, who was taking in a Yankees game Tuesday with his 13-year-old son, 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?”