Spotlight Operator Killed at Bowie Concert


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Tragedy struck at the James L. Knight Center in Miami moments before David Bowie was scheduled to take the stage on May 6th, when a spotlight operator plunged 50’ to his death.
Walter "Wally" Thomas, a 20-year veteran of the concert lighting industry, apparently fell to his death after not attaching his safety harness into the guide wire. The concert was abruptly cancelled and was not rescheduled as of press time. The tour’s lighting company is Light and Sound Design Fourth Phase, based in Newbury Park, CA, and the UK.

According to eyewitness accounts, Thomas fell onto the side of the stage after Bowie’s opening act, Stereophonic, finished its set and Thomas was preparing to get into position as a spotlight operator. Stagehands lowered a banner to block the scene from concertgoers, although some did witness the fall. Thomas was pronounced dead at the scene.

Two other spotlight operators were also working the concert and were wearing the OSHA-approved full-body harness required for such occasions, but they were not using the accompanying tether as it was too dark. The harness clips to a safety line from the overhead truss and takes up the slack in the tether as the stagehand climbs the ladder. Should a stagehand lose his footing, the harness engages and stops the fall.

Thomas previously had another fall that kept him off the job for 6 months in 1989 and paid him over $400,000 in workman’s comp.
may i be the first to offer my condolences to both the thomas family, losing any member of the industry is a tragedy but in such a way is ten times worse, i'm sure every member of contolbooth would feel for the friends and relatives, many of us having been in similar experiences i'm sure, i've been up spot towers without harnesses or other safety meauseres but i don't think i still would, maybe a few years ago, but now you hear of these sorts of incidents too many times not to. hopefully the company and all of us will learn from any mistakes made and try to prevent it happening again.
i would also like to offer my condolences. The Fourth Phase company is the company that my school bought its new equipment from, and the two men who came to help us set it up were very nice and patient, and I am sure this extends all across the company.
I'm not sure that the information above is correct.

Fourth phase was not listed on the tour schedule as the lighting company doing this. It might be the case that the actual lighting company doing the show is a subsiterary of them, but I don’t believe it necessary to blame Forth Phase or the company listed while the investigation is taking place. Soiling their name before they are proven to be at fault is not correct. Everyone is naturally curious as to who was doing the lighting for the gig, but until they are proven at fault I would not publish such things.
Such information should still have been held back from those without a need to know basis because of the bad PR that will follow for instance here. Given Fourth Phase is linked to the accident now, it’s funny how fast the opinion of the company goes down (I bought my gear from them...) - responsible for it or not, their employees or not.

I would caution anyone not to post specifics about a lighting company doing something wrong while the investigation is still in progress, much less if they are not directly at fault for it or you are not a direct witness. Not using ground support, sufficient engineering or tying off their gear makes that company culpable as in past accidents of late. At that point and after they are found responsible it’s public knowledge who did it as part of what was done.
Until than, especially in this case where that lighting company is not at fault - they provided the safety gear, it was not used, they should not have their name soiled by the accident. It was an accident, and a tragedy. The question is were they directly responsible for it or could have done anything to prevent it. Yes, I’m sure they will be changing some policies, but from what I can see they did not do anything that is overwhelmingly wrong on their end short of not allowing local crew members to be running crew for the show.

I do not intend to publically say who this lighting company was in the tour schedule because they were not at cause of the problem in my opinion. Nor was MR. Thomas an employee of that company - he was local crew. Fourth Phase much less the other company should not get a bad name for themselfs without being responsible for the accident. Fact is they did provide and have fall protection in place, the local crew chose not to use it. This person himself after 20 years in the field and having already had one similar accident to which he was well paid off for it in an amount sufficient to purchase two houses, still did not learn his job in being a professional he claimed to be, nor act in a safe way for not only his own protection but for the protection of anyone he might have fallen on.

There is no excuse for it and for this reason, this is more an isolated incident and a wake up call to the lighting companies providing the gear to better supervise the professionals on the local crew working their shows in not allowing them to do things that are unsafe since it's appairent that the local crew's stewert much employees can't be trusted to do so out of their own well being. Hopefully it’s even more a wake up call to individual Professionals in the industry and at least the local stewards supervising them.

This at most and minor at that, is the fault of the lighting companies crew chief - not supervising the local crew to the extent that he or she made sure those climbing a ladder during a show had used the safety gear as designed. "Stop the show, I have to run back stage and clip the spot operators into their fall protection for their climb up the ladder." Some how I don't think that very reasonable.
We all have jobs to do during a show, those in the area of someone doing something unsafe need to speak up, but the lighitng companies crew chief can't be expected to be everywhere, thus trusting professionals with 20 years expeience in the industry to at least use the fall protection provided for them. The lighting company thus is not responsible. There is a difference between a crew chief as the direct representitive of the company they work for seeing a local crew member doing something unsafe and kicking them off the crew before the show - this or at least making them do things safely as happens at times, and something happening during the show. Once the show is started, those on the crew are expected to act in a professional way that they are being paid well for.

On the further excuse of it being too dark to clip into the fall protection, and thus choosing to climb up without it. That's just as it is, an excuse or justification made by small people who did not wish to ask for some amount of light, much less just a clip light or stage hand with a flash light to assist. What these people are professionals and they did not even have a personal flash light to use in finding the fall protection no doubt within arm's reach of the ladder? A professional is expected to respect the blackout, on the other hand, they are also expected to take what ever measures are necessary to do their job safely. If this involves blinking the stage lights for a moment, or turning on their flash light and shielding it from the audience than what ever is necessary should have been done. No excuses. Given there was light enough for members of the audience to see the person fall, than there must also have been enough light to see your fall arrester. Hard to do a total blackout on stage anyway. If it is dark enough, than your mini-mag light is of more use than assisting you in tying your shoes.

In years past I can’t say I did things safely, in fact I have done some things that I scratch my head over in asking why I would do such a thing. Today such safety gear is very available, had it been back when I was doing such things I will not have. Even than had I fall protection available and right next to me in the dark, I will have not climbed a ladder without it. 10 years ago I will have climbed a truss ladder without fall protection as many have. No excuse today.

My opinion on the matter.
I would not normally post from other forums, but in this case, I find what was posted on Stagecraft yesterday is very useful in filling in the details. Details even I was far short of in my last post thus made assumptions to especially about Thomas. As listed in another news item about stagecraft being back, the more websites you take part in, the more wide the range of information you have access to. This discussion has also been taken up on lighting network.

Date: Thu, 13 May 2004 11:10:43 -0400
From: [email protected]
Subject: Miami Hearald Article regarding Thomas accident
References: <[email protected]>
In-Reply-To: <[email protected]>
User-Agent: Internet Messaging Program (IMP) 3.1

the article is pasted is pretty long

Kim Hartshorn

Posted on Sat, May. 08, 2004

Harness is focus in fatal fall

The veteran stagehand who fell to his death at the David Bowie concert was
wearing a safety harness but had not hooked it to a safety line, officials said.


[email protected] <mailto:[email protected]>

A Pembroke Pines stagehand who fell to his death Thursday within sight of David
Bowie fans rarely worked at heights since suffering a near-fatal fall at the
1989 Super Bowl, friends said Friday.
Investigators also said Friday that the fatal plunge onto the stage at the
James L. Knight Center in downtown Miami was probably caused by
Walter ''Wally'' Thomas' failing to clip on a ''fall arrest'' safety harness he
was wearing.
Some friends and fellow stagehands said they aren't willing to concede that the
fall was entirely Thomas' fault.
''First, I was stunned he was on a truss spot to begin with; he didn't usually
go high anymore,'' said Frank Townsend, who said he has worked with Thomas
since 1978. ``And second, I'm very upset he was allowed to get on that ladder
without his fall arrest.
''Ultimately, it was the lighting company's responsibility to make sure all the
local roadies follow the rules,'' Townsend said. ``They are supposed to stand
at the bottom of that ladder and not let anyone get on it without the proper
A spokesman for the lighting company on the Bowie Tour -- Light & Sound Design
Fourth Phase -- said Friday that his company is investigating whether it had
any involvement in the accident.
''Right now, I don't even know if it was our equipment he was using,'' said Bob
Manners, the California company's senior vice president of business affairs.
``I can tell you we are investigating it.''
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration also is investigating
to see whether safety rules were violated.
Thomas -- described by friends as a 25-year stage veteran, professional and
safety conscious -- fell to his death about 8:25 p.m. Thursday amid the usual
flurry of activity between the warm-up act and the main event.
The fall occurred at the rear of the stage and was witnessed by some
concertgoers. Other stagehands immediately lowered a concert banner to obscure
the scene while others rushed to his side.
Thomas was dead at the scene. The Miami-Dade medical examiner's office said
Friday that the cause of death was ''blunt trauma'' and all but ruled out
speculation that Thomas may have died from a heart attack before the fall.
Larry Cameron, operations director at the medical examiner's office, said
doctors were awaiting lab and blood results.
Thursday was the second time Thomas suffered severe head injuries in a work-
related fall.
On Jan. 22, 1989, Thomas was part of a crew working on a Bangles concert in the
parking lot at Joe Robbie Stadium during the Super Bowl when a hand-operated
hydraulic lift malfunctioned and sent him plunging 30 feet, police reports say.
''A gust of wind started blowing causing the lift to topple over,'' a Dade
County police report stated. ``The victim fell and hit his head on the
Thomas missed months of work and received workman's compensation benefits
totaling $408,244.
''He still has all the scars on his neck from all the tubes and stuff,'' said
fellow stagehand and friend Armando Coronel. ``He didn't like to work up high
very much after that.
''I don't know what he was doing up there [Thursday],'' Coronel said. ``But
what happened to Wally happens once every 50 years. It's nobody's fault.
Sometimes this stuff just happens.''
Tom Coll, the local boss of the International Alliance of Theater & Stage
Employees, said Thomas was among about 75 local union members working at the
Bowie concert.
''I don't know why he wasn't attached,'' Coll said. ``I was standing there when
one of the guys on the road crew helped them get into their harnesses. I heard
the guy talk to them about how they were supposed to use it. And I heard him
tell all the guys to make sure to clip off.
''This was a tragedy,'' Coll said. ``Wally was more than well-liked around
here, and we want to know as much as anyone what happened. There's no way he
could have fallen if he was using that fall arrest.''
According to Miami homicide Detective Ed Avila, Thomas and two others working
on the spotlights were each wearing devices called a ''full body harness'' --
an OSHA-approved device specifically designed to prevent such falls.
The harness is supposed to clip to a safety line that dangles from the truss
above. As the stagehand climbs the ladder, a pulley system loosely takes up the
slack in the tether.
''It's supposed to act sort of like a seat belt,'' Avila said. ``When a sudden
jerk of a fall hits the tether, it engages and stops the fall.''
Avila said the two other workers wearing the harnesses reported that they were
not using the tether because the stage was too dark and they couldn't find it.
Coll, who was there, disagreed. He said Thomas, a union member for nine years,
had enough experience to know how to clip on the tether and climb that ladder
even if he were blindfolded.
''Plus, it was intermission,'' Coll said. ``The lights were up and it wasn't
that dark.''
Luis Santiago, regional director of OSHA, said investigators from his office
could take as long as two months to determine whether any safety rules were
violated but that the ultimate responsibility rests with the company that hired
A review of OSHA records shows that workplace falls account for about 13
percent of all work-related deaths. In 2002, 714 of 5,524 work deaths resulted
from falls. Of that, 126 were falls from ladders.
Santiago also said his office has questions about the ladder used at the
''Frankly, I've never heard of this type of ladder before,'' he said. ``Within
our standards there is no ladder of this kind envisioned. I think that's
something we really need to look at.''
Santiago referred to a somewhat flexible and collapsible ladder constructed
from heavy steel cable and rungs made of steel rods. The ladder is designed to
be rolled up. It is portable and easily retractable during theatrical events.
Santiago said it is unclear whether the movement of the ladder could have
contributed to the fall.
Stagehands interviewed said the ladder is standard issue at concert events.
Friends said Thomas was obsessive about safety, always carrying safety
''He was always on the safe side, and he always carried around everything he
needed. I can't imagine how this happened,'' said Don DeRosa, 45, who described
himself as Thomas' best friend.
''He loved life and lived it large,'' DeRosa said of his single friend, with
whom he graduated from McArthur High School in 1977. ``You just can't believe
it until you actually see him laying there in a coffin. He'll never die as long
as the people who knew him keep him close in their hearts.''
DeRosa said Thomas loved his line of work. Even after his near-fatal Super Bowl
fall and generous compensation, he refused to stop working.
''He had a brush with death once. He already beat death that time. He cheated
it. He cracked his head like an egg,'' the friend said. ``You think that would
have been enough to deter him from going back to the job.
''He said, `I'll never have to worry about finances again,'' DeRosa said of
Thomas' financial settlements after the 1989 accident. ``He was set for life.
``What kept him in the business was the excitement of being behind the scenes
at the concerts. He loved being in the middle of the action.''
Herald staff writer Karl Ross, database editor Tim Henderson and researcher
Elisabeth Donovan contributed to this report.
I have seen many locals and roadies do the same thing from the pit at many concerts. I think the union might want to look into fining people that do not take aproprate safty measures. Out locals rules mention nothing of what happens if your accident cost a production company thousands of dollers in losses and what not.
i won't ever forget to clip in! (but then again i never did before.)
this is still a really sad story and one that i will show to my bosses just to remind them that these things happen, i am sick of everone being so rushed at all times when we are trying to just be safe.
Man that has to be very hard on all his co workers and friends and most of all. some things happen for reasons and sometimes we dont agree with things happing. just keep his family and friends in your prayers everyone.

Derek Gaul
D.M.G. Productions
[email protected]
Safety always comes first. And at the same time... oh gosh. Wally's friends, family and co-workers are definatly in my prayers. Godspeed Wally.

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