Another rainy night at Turner Field, the tarp still stretched across the infield at game time, the lights of the Braves stadium reflected in spreading puddles on the aisles.
Only a few fans strolled the uppermost concourse Wednesday. Some, as they approached the area behind Section 413 — the one with seats high above the first-base/right-field line — veered from cover, away from the diamond, out to the stadium’s rim. They would hook both hands to the top of the gut-high railing and peer out to the street and players’ parking area below. Such a long way down.
In the great green expanse of a ballfield that has been the setting this season for so much joy — and baseball’s best home record — there is this one sobering overlook.
It was on just such a sodden night last Monday that 30-year-old Ronald Lee Homer Jr., described by his parents as a fervent Braves fan and frequent visitor to their home park, fell to his death.
His was the second such fan death at an Atlanta sports venue in the last year and the third since 2008. According to the Institute for the Study of Sports Incidents, there have been more than two dozen reports of fans falling in stadiums across the nation in the last 10 years.
Similar questions follow each incident: Are our sporting pleasure palaces safe? How should designers compromise between the need for a wide-open viewing experience and adequate fan constraint? And with so many incidents involving the bad combination of great heights and alcohol use — no such finding in Homer’s case yet; toxicology tests are pending — how much can teams do to protect fans against their own bad judgment?
As he surveyed the scene of Homer’s fall, Alpharetta’s Ted Johnson, himself a 20-game-a-year Turner Field regular, expressed the kind of shock and confusion that has kept constant company with the tragedy.
“It was stunning to hear about it,” Johnson said. “I’ve heard of people falling after they had been sitting on a rail. But this, I just don’t understand.
“How did that young man do it?”
The spot from where Homer fell 85 feet to the ground is not on the common fan footpath. Homer reportedly retreated to an area off the south concourse during a rain delay, to the section of an adjoining tower that contains a freight elevator and doubles as a storage area for beverage carts. From there, he fell over a 3 1/2-foot high railing, landing in the compound where the Braves players park their cars and walk into the stadium’s basement.
His family has contended the railing, which met safety codes, was too low to adequately protect the nearly 6-foot-6 Homer.
More than 14 million fans have attended Braves games since 2008. Two have died as a result of falls.
In ‘08, a 25-year-old Cumming man died while trying to slide down the handrail of a Turner Field staircase, flipping over backwards and falling down four levels of the stadium.
Next Saturday’s Chick-fil-A Kickoff college game at the Georgia Dome marks the one-year anniversary of the death of a 20-year-old fan from Lenoir City, Tenn. Celebrating a Tennessee touchdown, the young man toppled over an upper deck railing and fell 45 feet. The Fulton County Medical Examiner’s office determined the man had a blood alcohol level of twice the legal limit.
There is disagreement as to whether the potential for such fatal falls can be engineered out of our large arenas.
Alana Penza, director of the Institute for the Study of Sports Incidents, told the Associated Press, “The reality is you have to think about how many of these incidents actually happen at a venue. Not that many. They’re devastating when they do happen, but they’re not a lot. You do the best to keep yourself safe, but you can’t always forecast what’s going to happen.”
However, Jake Pauls, a Maryland-based independent consultant in building use and safety, sees even two deaths in the last year as “well above my expectation.”
“Really, you shouldn’t have any deaths from falls during the life of any stadium,” he said.
Also, he said, the role of alcohol “should not be considered as relevant as to whether the fall would have occurred or not based on guard height. I’m not sure how much acceptance there is among authorities but that’s my position.” Those at the game who are inebriated are the ones who require the most protection from more stringent safety codes, he contended.
For its part, the Georgia World Congress Center Authority, which operates the Dome, made no alterations to the facility in response to last year’s accident. GWCCA spokeswoman Jennifer LeMaster said that various state agencies investigated the fall and “subsequently found no operations or systems failures which led to the tragic accident.”
Over the past year, she added, the Georgia Dome was given the highest safety rating by the National Football League.
Proving arenas at fault in court has been a difficult proposition. In a notable 2010 case, the family of a 2-year-old boy who died in a fall from a Staples Center luxury suite sued the facility and the Los Angeles Lakers. The suit was thrown out by a judge who ruled that the fault rested with the child’s parents.
Sometimes as a result of such accidents, stadiums do undergo alterations.
One of the most horrific stadium falls occurred two years ago at the Texas Rangers’ ballpark in Arlington, Texas, when a 39-year-old father fell while reaching for a ball thrown into the stands by right fielder Josh Hamilton. With his young son watching, the man subsequently died of cardiac failure. The Rangers afterward raised the height of some front-row upper deck railings by as much as a foot.
At Georgia Tech, two fans took slight falls from the Bobby Dodd Stadium stands on consecutive weeks last season, both resulting in minor injuries. As a result, Tech increased it security presence around the student seating section and began posting signs about the hazards of sitting or leaning on the railing.
Unrelated was an unusual decision by the Tech administration prior to last October’s opening of the Yellow Jackets new basketball arena, the McCamish Pavilion. On a walk-through as construction was concluding, administrators felt much of the upper deck railing, while within code, came up uncomfortably short. Front row railings can be at knee level or lower in order to provide fans an unobstructed view while seated immediately behind them. At additional cost, Tech replaced the original railing with some a foot higher.
The result, said Associate Athletic Director Ryan Bamford: Complaints from customers that the higher railing impaired their view of the court.
“We’ll take that complaint any day if we know our fans are safer,” Bamford said.