School officials address tent collapse that injured kids during storm

The Hawaii Department of Education and Kapiolani Community College are speaking out after a large tent collapsed Saturday, sending three minors to the hospital in stable condition.

It happened at around 11:30 a.m. on the Great Lawn of Kapiolani Community College during a science and engineering fair put on by the Board of Education.

The tent served as a waiting area for family members of the students who submitted their science projects. There was also entertainment inside.

Dramatic home video showed people scrambling for cover as chairs and poles scatter across the campus lawn. School officials say there were about 200 people in the tent when it collapsed. They estimate a tent that large must have weighed about 500 pounds.

We pressed officials about why the event wasn’t canceled, especially since heavy rain, wind, and gusts were in the forecast. Some outdoor events were canceled even before the weekend started, so why did the fair go on as planned?

The DOE and KCC both told us they did not expect the weather to be that strong.

“I don’t know that anybody knew it was going to be as bad as it was. We’ve had rain on this campus before, and we’ve had wind on this campus before, but I’ve never seen the trees break this way,” said Louise Pagotto, vice chancellor, KCC Office of Academic Affairs. “Everyone had the same information about the weather wasn’t going to be great. I do know that there were other times when we’ve had rain here, and we’ve just scrambled and made sure everybody got shelter.”

“We did know about the weather, and it was a normal weather report about windy conditions coming and heavy rains, and yet that morning, there was hardly any winds, just the rains came. I’m going to be very honest with you, it occurred only in 30 seconds. It was really a freak act of Mother Nature. It was not a normal wind that you can predict. So the predictions of what was going to happen was not what really happened,” said Ruth Silberstein, DOE complex superintendent.

“Some outdoor events were canceled. Why not do the same or at least consider it?” KHON2 asked.

“We took the precautions that were necessary. We moved things indoors thinking, okay, if it gets windy, this will be fine,” Silberstein replied. “I think it depends where you’re situated, if you feel the strengths. So if we felt the strengths of the winds, we would say yeah, let’s cancel already.”

“But there were still a lot of people outside under the tent though?” KHON2 said.

“Yes, but if that freak accident didn’t happen, it would have been fine,” she said.

As far as the Department of Education is concerned, the whole incident was a freak weather event and there was nothing that could have prepared officials for what happened on Saturday.

Kapiolani Community College closed the campus immediately after the incident for safety reasons. The school has hosted the event for the past seven years.

“There was no way to move it anywhere indoors on campus?” KHON2 asked Pagotto.

“It would have meant moving all the people into those areas,” she replied. “Those are the people who are waiting, waiting for their children. There’s not one other place on campus where there’s a holding area that’s big enough for those people.”

Pagotto says the only other large room was the cafeteria, which is where most of the students were, along with their projects. So people in the tent would have been moved to different classrooms.

“In hindsight though, do you think that would have been a better idea than having them outside?” KHON2 asked.

“I don’t know that I can’t speak for — It wasn’t our event in a sense,” Pagotto said. “I don’t know if there was a way to have made those decisions in that time frame.”

Pagotto says KCC will work with the DOE to have a better plan for future events.

“We will be having a much longer discussion with the DOE in the next couple of weeks to go over what happened, go over contingencies, how do we go forward with this and a very frank discussion about how to make things better,” Pagotto said.

The campus is still trying to dry out from this weekend’s weather. Officials say there was damage campus-wide, mostly from water.

Five trees came down, and some classrooms were filled with at least an inch of mud.

“We had flood damage to especially a couple of buildings, some from leaks from the roof, but Kalia Building had mud and water come in from the back,” Pagotto said. “So there are classrooms that are out of commission for at least a week. We have a professional cleaning crew coming in to clean up and sanitize those rooms, because there was severe water damage.”

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