Yesterday’s football practice delivered a crushing blow to the entire Notre Dame family.  Declan Sullivan, a 20 year old junior at the University, fell to his death after a gust of wind toppled the scissor lift he was filming practice from.

There are undoubtedly many questions to be asked: Why was he up there when the lift states it shouldn’t be used in winds above 25 MPH? Why was the team practicing outside when in similar conditions they were indoors?  Why did practice still continue after the lift fell?  Why didn’t Kelly or someone else in charge of the film crew tell him to get down?

The ongoing investigation will reveal the official answers to these questions, it all boils down something that ends up being very hard to explain.  Basically, I’m sure no one thought twice about it, even Declan whom, by his own Twitter and Facebook posts, was admittedly terrified.  Again though, I’m sure no one thought any of those lifts would come crashing down.

Now I’m not looking to absolve anyone from blame because there is no doubt this was avoidable, but there is a culture that few people really understand.  I myself was struck quite hard by this news.  Being a former student manager myself and working alongside other fellow students who were either managers, sports medicine, or the A/V team that filmed the practices, I never thought something like this could happen.  I was a part of this culture myself and I’m sure I have attended practices myself in which the winds gusted over the suggested 25 MPH limit.

As one poster at NDN brilliantly put it, we never thought much about such things (quoting the post since they are flushing the boards more often than a public toilet right now):

I was a student manager for three years at ND so yesterday’s accident hit me pretty hard. All students that assist the team (managers, trainers, film crew, etc.) take their job seriously and want to be the best. We always considered our manager organization the best in the country.

People ask why was he in the lift. Who told him to go up? The reality probably is that no one told him to go up, that was his assigned job for the day and that is what he did. He knew what was expected and he did it. Yes, he was scared but he knew what had to be done.

It hard to explain, but the mangers are not micro-managed by anyone except themselves. We knew what our jobs were and how to do them. The coaches had a job to do and we assisted them without bogging them down in the details. It’s not like someone had to tell the student to go up; he knew his job was to film.

No one probably gave any thought to the lift being up there. It was there up in the air every day for filming. Nothing unusual. It’s not like Kelly or Swarbrick ordered him up there. I am sure he loved what he was doing and wanted to do the best job possible.

I know when I was at practice I wanted nothing more than to make the practice run perfectly. That was my position: get the job done with no one noticing. I am sure that this kid felt the same way.

I know there are thousand more questions to come. I know an adult should have been overseeing the weather. I know someone should have brought him down.

But you see these kids are so committed to their work. That is what makes them special; that is what made him special! It is tough to explain but my heart is broken. He was doing what he loved and paid the ultimate price.

Maybe this is just me being emotional, but for the moment forget the blame game. The student assistants are special kids; may God always keep them in his love.


That post and this whole incident reminded me of an experience I had as a manager during the Weis-era.

Usually during cold weather, practices were held indoors; however, on one particular day, Weis wanted to take advantage of an absolutely blistering cold day outside to toughen the team up.  There was no snow outside, so I’m sure he felt the chance for injury was minimal.  A bit of cold wouldn’t kill his players and besides, it would give them an advantage during a cold home game.  They would be moving to stay warm and when they weren’t, they would have heavy winter parkas available to them.

Everyone else also had these jackets available for use during the practice…well everyone except for the student managers since it was not a part of our issued gear.  So for weather in the teens (and some pretty stiff winds too), we had on our issued sweats and wind-suits covering to try to keep us warm.

It failed quite miserably.

Sure we bitched and complained, but there wasn’t much we could do about it. We had a job to do, so we did it.  The sophomores working under us were even worse off as they were not issued any kind of real cold weather gear.  It was awful, but we were going to fight through it.

A few periods into practice, Weis had enough.

He stopped practice, turned to the head equipment manager for Notre Dame (staff member) and chewed him out for allowing all the managers to freeze.  Weis got an explanation that we didn’t have any issued jackets, but that wasn’t good enough.  Weis demanded that additional jackets be brought out for us and that the sophomores be sent home as a precaution.  A few minutes later, the sophomores were warm in their dorms and I had a nice fluffy parka on for the rest of practice to comfortably continue my job.

Yes, it wasn’t a life or death situation, but, to put it mildly, some of the things that went on during football practice and the managers program could boil down to pure “this is how we do it” stupidity.  Believe me, our group questioned several things that we did, many of them with the same “this is how we do it” answers.  However, we just shrugged our shoulders and went on with things.

Like “Goldboiler” said, we all had pride in our jobs and wanted to help the team and coaches.  I’m sure Declan felt the same.  The team needed film of practice.  The overhead high-angle film is needed to get a good view of things on the field (hell, they even did that for our student manager game too each season) and someone had to control the camera to get it.  I’m sure the last thing on anyone’s mind was that one of those lifts would topple (there are three out there each practice [EDIT: after reading more news, looks like my memory is hazy, there are only two scissor lifts, but also two permanent towers]).

Yes, this was an avoidable tragedy.  Yes, I desperately wish someone would have played the role of Weis to stop things down to slap someone in the face of with the question of “why the hell are we doing this?!”

Mangers, sports medicine, and film crew alike are there to ensure that the coaches only have to worry about their players and their practices.  Unfortunately, this can allow for them to get tunnel-visioned.  I guarantee Kelly wishes like hell he was thinking more about the students in the lifts rather than his team preparing for a possible windy day against Tulsa.  I would wager the person in charge of the filming crew didn’t even think the lifts could be toppled by a gust of wind.

It’s the way we do things.  Nothing like this has ever happened before.

Like I said, I don’t wish to pass the buck or use this all as an excuse; however, I know there are people who want someone to take the blame.  In the end, someone will be held responsible.  I’m sure of it.  My main goal in writing this is to shed some light on the “how can this happen” question.

It’s beyond tragic that a 20 year old kid will have to laid to rest because of this.  My prayers go out to Declan’s family and friends as well the entire Notre Dame family.

As a former manager who has worked alongside students like Declan, I hope for nothing more than for the words “this is how we do things” to forever be erased from the vocabulary of anyone involved with these organizations.  It has taken one life and that is far, far too many.

  • tricerapops

    wonderful post Ryan – thanks for sharing and let’s all continue to keep the Sullivan family in our thoughts and prayers.

  • Jeney

    Bravo, sir. I feel exactly as you do and I do not doubt any other manager, trainer, or film crew do as well. This is a hard event to swallow and I pray that Declan’s family and the family of Notre Dame football can find peace in this terrible tragedy.

    I second that “this is how it’s done” needs to be changed within the ND football program. It’s gone too far…

  • The Biscuit

    I can see this being the case. Good perspective. What this means to me is that the Manager program is too independent and requires more direct supervision/oversight so these types of things can never happen again.

  • The Prof

    I say this with all possible respect for students and staff who contribute so much to the ND football program. They make an enormous commitment to this program in which we all take pride.

    The trouble I’m having with this view of the tragedy is the apparent lack of accountability. A safe and ethical workplace requires more good intentions — it takes training, judgement, supervision, and a top down commitment to doing things right every time. Putting a student worker in a unsafe situation is a serious breakdown. To be frank, goldboiler’s account makes me worry about that this tragedy was the result of poor workplace supervision. Did this tragedy really have to happen?

  • Ryan Ritter

    @The Prof

    I 100% agree. That was the main motivation of writing this post.

    I don’t mean to degrade the very same program I was proud to be a part of, but I know that most people just simply aren’t aware of the culture that surrounds it, and other programs that assist football. For many on the outside looking in, “how can this happen?” is the obvious question. When I look at it, I’m terrified because I think “how has this not happened before?”

    Someone will be held accountable for this and I’m sure someone will have to fall on the sword in the end. There is no excuse for what happened, and yes it was an avoidable tragedy. Having the lifts up during high winds is as dumb to me as me and other managers being out in the freezing cold without proper winter gear. Sure, nothing has happened before, but steps should always be taken to make sure nothing ever happens to begin with.

  • Dino

    Your insight on this is great.

    Dedicated employees (managers, trainers, film crew, etc.) that don’t need to be micromanaged is a real testament to the program and the university.

    It is a tragedy that a life was cut so short. Declan Sullivan was on his way to conquering life.

  • sadder/wiser77

    my perspective as an ND alum & as a construction professional of over 2 decades, Like many in my field I have mandatory MIOSHA training & certification w. annual refresher courses. Most importantly that training is constantly reviewed & reinforced by my employer, a construction manager of national reputation who has one of the lowest accident rates in the country. This is no small achievement as it affects insurability and cost of premiums, with resultant bid advantages.

    That is the practical aspect. There is also doing whatever it takes to assure the greatest safety margins for employees, contractors, vendors, clients and the general public in their myriad interactions with the jobsite.

    Without presuming to know the answers or to speculate (as many are doing on other ND boards) I offer these questions:

    Were the university’s own protocols regarding daily checks of equipment and weather conditions followed, and how was such info logged?

    If protocols were followed was the equipment check done by the operator or by the operator’s supervisor(s)?

    Which of them (if any) would be categorized as a “competent person” (specifically as defined by OSHA, in this case IOSHA for the state of Indiana) trained on and familiar with the parameters of the equipment and its appropriate use?

    What was the wind rating for this particular piece of equipment? Scissor lifts, scaffolding etc. all are rated differently. The wind speed at ground was gusting up to 51 mph at the nearby South Bend airport.
    Wind speed recorded above ground level tends to be greater.

    Was there fall protection used? of what type?

    The student managers’ dedication to getting the job done (e.g. filming from the towers) is admirable.
    However it does not replace (nor should it) technical knowledge & training. This account has left me more concerned that there was an egregious laxity in allowing students staff to use this equipment which may devolve from deficient supervision (in both quality and quantity).

    This is a horrible tragedy and my dispassionate take on it is in no way meant to minimize that.

  • The Prof

    @Ryan Ritter

    I get your point, we’re on the same page.

    Being the father of two sons just a bit older than Declan, I can’t imagine the heartbreak and loss his family is suffering right now. We grieve with them, and pray with them for Declan.

    When the time comes to be sure this never happens again, my prayer is that the investigation is thorough, objective, done by experts, and completely ruthless. Someone falling on their sword is not enough to be sure this never happens again.

    We can’t compromise the spark and individualism that makes ND so special, but do have to learn how to be safe. There have been too many accidents over the years, both for staff and for students. That means training, teaching, and allowing safety judgements to trump the immediate pressures to get things done. This is a cultural change that will not be easy for a place like ND.

    As we pray with Declan’s family, let’s make sure this never happens again.

  • Chris

    As someone who was on campus all day yesterday, I’m compelled to add to this account that it wasn’t just a windy day, it was a “Holy hell, it’s windy!” day, all day. Buildings were shaking from the wind. So how it couldn’t have been at the forefront of everyone’s minds that a tower could topple in that kind of weather is beyond me. It was barely safe to walk on a sidewalk, let alone be hoisted in the air. And when I then heard Jack Swarbrick in his press conference today say (twice) that when he was outside before the accident, the weather was normal and he thought nothing of the wind (he even saw two passes completed! Sweet!), I call bullshit, and I start to wonder if the people responsible really will be held responsible. I’m just heartsick and disgusted by all of this.

  • sadder/wiser

    Prof: your comments are appreciated.

    For Notre Dame, it’s past time for “learning to be safe”. ANY institution that owns facilities for reasons of functionality and liability MUST have a comprehensive safety program, and in more than name only. Safety in the workplace has to be practiced, lived and constantly refined.

    I took note of your statement “There have been too many accidents over the years, both for staff and for students”. Interesting. IOSHA, if they are anything like MIOSHA, may widen the scope of their investigation to all ND facilities, looking for evidence of a pattern of unsafe practices, especially if knowledgeable persons come forward.

    In the jobsite as well as the workplace, safety is compromised for expediency, cost, lack of manpower, lack of training, etc. And employees, esp. at will employees, are often very loathe to report occasional or ongoing infractions, or they are ignorant of their rights to a safe workplace. Young employees especially so.

    I am NOT saying any of the above pertains to Notre Dame. I do not know. I do know IOSHA will find out..

    I do know that ND has a facility management group whose responsibilities include advising and assisting all users of UND property, including the Athletic Department.

    Right now this sickens me. It was not a freak accident. It was the tragic outcome of routine practices
    followed in non-routine conditions which cost the life of a student employee of the Athletic Department.

    And now, per today’s press conference, we learn that two other towers were being manned by student employees of the Athletic Department in those same weather conditions. It is evident they too were working just as Declan Sullivan was, which placed them in great jeopardy.

    Like many others I await what will be disclosed as to the particulars. There will commence a mandatory investigation by IOSHA as a death of an employee in the workplace has occurred, a process that may take several months to conclude. By that time the headlines will have faded, but not the heartsickness of the Sullivan and Notre Dame families.

    Going forward, by way of “lessons learned”: leave the use of scaffolds, scissor lifts, and related equipment to professionals and/or “competent persons.” If the student employees do not meet those qualifications, keep them out of these apparati. Period.

    Perhaps (pending the outcome of the IOSHA investigation) they should never have been in them in the first place. IF so, it is unacceptable that a life was lost to drive that point home.

    I understand prayers, and this is the time for those. But let there be thoughtful action and measurable effort to remedy the preventable factors that led to this tragedy.

  • sadder/wiser77

    a comment from someone who says he does contracted work at Notre Dame (I can’t vouch for the veracity of that statement):

    Posted by: Concerned Location: Close By on Oct 28, 2010 at 11:54 AM

    When the severe weather approached on Monday ND told all of us contractors to head to safety shelters. I am assuming that was directed by campus safety dept. Why in the world did they not see the risk of these lifts. I know exactly where they are as I work around campus, they clearly specify permissable limits on all of these lifts. I believe 28 mph winds are considered too high for most scissor lifts as they do not have any outriggers to add stablity. Have they not heard of pan/tilt camera mounts that can be remotely controlled?!? Out of all the money wasted around campus on edifices of architectual gradure a young mans life is lost for a meaningless game. God Help this mans family and I hope some enlightenment for the University.
    [ Report Abuse ]

  • The Prof


    Yes, you’re reading my comments as I meant them. My career has been in academics at ND, so I don’t have your experience with modern contracting. But I do recall working on construction sites as a teenager 30+ years ago and have see things on our campus that wouldn’t have passed muster back then.

    Students running scissor lifts is one example. I’d add to that golf carts and cars on campus sidewalks. With the expansion of campus we now see golf carts everywhere, owned by departments and run by secretaries, students, and even our Deans of Science and Business. It’s a minor annoyance to step aside for this folks, the more serious issue is the inevitable accident that will happen when a distracted driver hits a student preoccupied with their phone. Drivers of golf carts are supposed to have safety training, but that doesn’t make me feel safer when stepping around a blind corner on a campus sidewalk.

    Another example is the routine storage of high pressure gas cylinders in public areas of the science and engineering buildings. Just today I got a generic email sent around by someone looking for a helium cylinder that’s gone missing. Did a student pick it up as a gag so they could do donald duck voices? I doubt it, but what’s to stop them? Or maybe a cylinder of high pressure hydrogen? Again, an accident waiting to happen.

    The tragic accidents that come to mind are the swim team bus that ran off the toll road during a winter blizzard, the groundskeeper who lost her hand in a wood chipper, and now Declan Sullivan. All of these were avoidable, imho.

    So as we pray for Declan and his family, I sincerely hope we also have the courage to dig down to find and fix the root causes for these tragedies.

  • LD

    Thanks for your perspective it is enlightening. However, I think you are too close to the situation to see how guilty and grossly negligent the athletic department is in this matter. I think swarbrick is shameful for clearly trying to cya one day after the incident before Mr. Sullivan has even been laid to rest. I think it again speaks volumes to how the program literally takes for granted the kids on the periphery of the program helping it out. Jim Tressel’s comments at the Tuesday press conference where he specifically indicated that he was concerned about the cameramen due to the weather conditions is very damning for the powers that be in this situation. Why was no one in the ND program thinking along these lines on Wednesday? Kelly AND Swarbrick are responsible for oversight of these things. I lost a lot of respect for Swarbrick because not only was he minimizing an obviously dangerous situation, he also said that the individual programs make practice decisions which is an attempt to protect himself. He is responsible in this case as well as he is ultimately responsible for oversight of all of the programs and to make sure that safety measures are in place and that everyone is trained on these safety matters. This was a senseless loss of life because not only was it avoidable, it is incomprehensible that it even happened. It took a literally 100’s of people having virtually no concern for that young man’s well being and that is despicable.

  • Ryan Ritter


    I hope you don’t mistake my post or comments as any form of excuse for the negligence displayed because that is far from my goal. My main goal is to paint the picture of how something like this could happen.

    Many people I know in the ND family call their time at the University as “being in the bubble.” Being involved with athletics is like “being in the bubble within the bubble.”

    You are right in saying that the responsibility does ultimately lie with Jack; however, I do not believe he is in any kind of mode to cover his ass. Unless I missed something major from his presser quotes, he did none of that. He specifically stated that he personally didn’t think anything of the winds and that he didn’t yet know who makes the final call for people going in the lifts.

    I can assure you that he has no clue; in fact, I can almost guarantee OSHA is going to be confused as hell when no one else they question will know. All the various groups act autonomously of each other and Jack is 100% correct in saying that. Sure there is a ND staff member in charge of each group, but there is no clear protocol as to who on the football field has the final word to overrule any group. Each staff member either makes assignments to each student or, in the case of managers, a student (senior manager) makes those assignments

    In my winter coat situation, Weis didn’t say anything until several periods into practice. Maybe he didn’t feel like it was his place, maybe he didn’t even notice that we as managers, who try to be in the background as much as possible, didn’t have any issued heavy winter coats, or maybe he was just too focused on practice and didn’t even bother to look at a manager until nearly halfway through practice. That was the only time anyone outside the managers organization ever intervened on our operations directly.

    I can understand why you say it is incomprehensible for so many people to not have so little concern for safety during a practice. I understand why you are angry; I am as well. It has always been ridiculous to me that football, managers, sports medicine, and the filming crew did not work together and had a single person to answer to in the end.

    Hell, we weren’t even encouraged to work together.

    I’ll never forget that, for some reason, we had to drag heavy tackling dummies in and out of Loftus before and after every indoor practice (senior managers changed this the following year because they thought it was ridiculous) and the answer we got was “this is how it’s always been done”. Sports medicine felt sorry for us one day and a couple trainers let us load the scout dummies into their cart to take back to the practice field house. It was great, we had never been done cleaning an indoor practice so fast.

    The following day, the head staff member for managers bitched us out for doing it. Why? Because the head staff member of sports medicine bitched out his members for allowing us to use their carts to carry heavy equipment and our equipment manager got a piece of his mind as well.

    It all makes no sense, and the command structure needs to change. Someone, outside of all these autonomous groups, needs to have the final say in such matters.

  • The Prof


    “I can assure you that he has no clue; in fact, I can almost guarantee OSHA is going to be confused as hell when no one else they question will know.”

    This rings true. As does (referring to Jack Swarbrick) “He specifically stated that he personally didn’t think anything of the winds and that he didn’t yet know who makes the final call for people going in the lifts.” referring to Jack Swarbrick. These statements are symptoms of a larger issue.

    Figuring out the chain of responsibility on that particular day may (or may not) lead to a mid- or low-level staffer falling on their sword. If that’s the only outcome, then we didn’t get to the issue of how to make safety a core practice in University life.

    As I said in an earlier post, I hope the investigation is thorough, done by real experts (and I don’t mean by NDSP), and has the independence / transparency needed for real change. Anything less than this, I fear, kicks the can down the road until the next tragedy.

  • LD

    Ryan, I’m sure you have the internal operations down pat based on your experiences. However, that doesn’t make them wrong or the powers that be grossly negligent for allowing operations to continue that way. The reason why I think swarbrick looks like a complete fool trying to cya himself and the coaching staff is that there isn’t a soul alive during that two day period who didn’t know there was severe wind and weather advisories. His statement makes him and the university look absolutely foolish at best and clueless at worst. Either way, its an embarassment for the university. I think your statements also support what I said in my original post, the university and the people in charge have virtually no concern or thought for the people on the periphery of the program. Why is Jim Tressel, a head coach at a public university, more concerned for the well being of all those around him than the head coach and administrators at a Catholic institution? Ignorance is no excuse here and I don’t think OSHA will see it that way. If you are using power equipment such as the lifts you have to have people trained on the equipment including the safety measures and limits of the equipment. Do you think
    Declan goes up in that thing if he knows sustained winds over 20 miles an hour may knock it down? I don’t think so. He didn’t know and no one at the University took the time to know. That’s gross negligence almost be definition. I think its shamelful that Jenkins and Kelly weren’t present at the presser answering questions. They embarassed the university and even more so themselves. Be MEN and step up to the plate. A young man is dead. Stop running like cowards trying to save yourselves. If they had more concern for someone other than themselves this wouldn’t have happened.

  • sadder/wiser77

    the legal chain of responsibility & from it the assessment of fault will play out, but from a *moral* point of view, every adult on the practice field that windy day who saw Declan Sullivan up in the air 30-50 feet above ground, and said nothing, or did nothing (if they had the authority to do anything) is at fault.

    I’m particularly disgusted by Jack Swarbrick’s performance at the presser;

    * Listing his own arrival & actions minute by minute “4:56 pm, 4:57 pm) and how he was distracted by speaking with someone. How everything was so routine (weather included,Jack?) and he arrived barely in time to watch a few plays…setting up his alibi that he did not have time to notice and react to the situation that put Declan in jeopardy & ultimately killed him.

    * saying all was routine until he felt a freakish unexpected burst of wind that moved Gatorade containers, etc. A simple check of the weather station at South Bend airport approx 5 miles away will reveal that there were *constant* wind speeds in the 20 – 30 mph range, and gusts in the 40-50 mph.

    At the time of the death the top gust at the airport recording device was clocked at 53 mph.

    * does anyone believe that he did not know who made the lift? That he did not know about safety procedures for using the lift? That no one from campus safety or the Building & Grounds Dept knew this, or whether there were the mandatory warning stickers about wind threshholds, or when the lift had last been inspected?

    * why was Jack Swarbrick privy to a call from the ambulance service notifying him that Declan had just died? This is completely contrary to HIPPA and all SOP by first responders.

    Swarbrick is a lawyer, alright. And that ain’t no compliment.

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