Three people died and 38 more were injured on Aug. 20, 1966, as Illinois State Fair workers were preparing a catwalk for a planned demonstration by U.S. Army Green Berets. The accident was the worst ever in state fair history.
The Green Berets intended to demonstrate how they were trained to rappel down from helicopters to rescue wounded soldiers in Vietnam. The plan involved stretching a taut rope 100 feet from the catwalk atop the fairgrounds grandstand to the ground.
All those involved believed the catwalk had been welded to the roof deck, according to testimony at a Sangamon County coroner’s inquest held Aug. 25. In fact, the structure was supported only by four angle irons attached to the deck with wood screws.
On the ground, the rope was anchored by a tow truck. Its operator, Ernest Schmidt, said Green Beret Sgt. 1st Class Robert Rumrill was in charge of the ground rigging. Rumrill took four hitches in the line, Schmidt said, drawing it so tight the truck’s back wheels were spinning. Schmidt said he told Rumrill he thought the line was “too damn tight.”
“He said the sergeant grabbed the line to test it, and ‘that’s when all hell broke loose,’” according to an Illinois State Journal article about the inquest.
The catwalk fell at an angle. Killed were two photographers who had been standing on the catwalk, Glen Lockwood of San Bernardino, Calif., and Dale Mueller of Overland, Mo., and Ralph Heger of Springfield, stage manager and electrician for grandstand shows. Heger, at ground level, was crushed when the catwalk fell on him.
Another man, Ronald Drewett of Springfield, was critically injured, and four others required hospital treatment. The others injured were treated at a fairgrounds first aid station.
The coroner’s jury ruled the deaths accidental.
The tragedy was compounded the next day, when motorcycle racer Bill Corbin was killed in a five-bike pileup.
The state fair has been the scene of at least 12 other fatalities. Most took place during auto or motorcycle racing, but others occurred in a train wreck, because of a stabbing and on a carnival ride. The list includes:
*Sept. 25, 1900: A Chicago, Peoria & St. Louis Railroad train carrying fairgoers to and from the fair derailed near the southeast entrance (now Gate 2) of the fairgrounds and struck an oncoming Chicago & Alton engine. The CP & St.L train overturned, crushing both the engineer and fireman – John Ryan and Jeremiah Hall, respectively. Both men lived in Springfield.
*Oct. 1, 1910: Larue Vredenburgh, president of the Springfield Automobile Club, was killed while driving in a 20-mile race.
*Sept. 19, 1925: In the feature auto race, a multi-car accident killed driver Roy Humphrey. Three other drivers were injured.
*Aug. 17, 1929: Auto race spectator William Wayne was killed and three drivers and seven spectators injured when two cars smashed through the outside metal rail.
*Aug. 20, 1938: Billy Winn, winner of state fair auto races in 1934 and 1935, was killed in a crash on Lap 4.
*Aug. 21, 1938: Motorcycle racer Floyd Faulkner of Tilton was killed in an accident during time trials.
*Aug. 17, 1940: Carnival dancer Lorene Dudley was stabbed to death by her boyfriend, Booker T. Starks, a saxophone player with the fair’s carnival contractor, the Hennies Brothers Shows.
Aug. 17, 1947: Rider Kenneth J. Ingle was killed in a four-motorcycle wreck.
Aug. 22, 1964: Bill Horstmeyer, driving in his first USAC event, hit the fence on Turn 4. His car rolled over several times, landed upside-down on the front stretch and caught fire. Horstmeyer died a short time later.
Aug. 15, 1996: Hope School student Tamara Terrell, 14, apparently panicked at the top of the carnival’s Kamikaze ride, slipped out of her shoulder harness and fell through an opening in the gondola she was riding in. She was struck and killed by the gondola as it completed its arc.
Aug. 19, 2001: Dean Roper, who started 10th in the Allen Crowe Memorial auto race, had a fatal heart attack at the wheel, resulting in an accident on Lap 18.
Hat tip: Information on all the above incidents originated with a comprehensive Illinois State Fair timeline compiled by Springfield researcher Tom Fitch.
Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society.
My dad was there as a photographer for the old Illinois Information Service when that happened. I was eight years old and remember the panic in our house until we found out he was OK. Terrible accident and was so glad when dad got home that night.
We spent a lot of time at the Fair in the sixties. Springfield was hopping during Fair time even in the Jerome area. I remember banners over Wabash saying “Welcome Race Fans”.
Larry: Thanks for the memory of the accident. And you’re right about the fair being a big deal. I was a north-end kid, and the fair was always the culmination of summer vacation.
I was there. I had gone down to the concession stand to get a hotdog with Tim Delrose and Tony Sebino.Those two went to the john and as I was waiting for their return I tried to go out by the stage that was set up.The man (who I now know was Mr.Heger) was real nice but firm and would not let out there so I turned around and started to walk away. I immediately heard a very loud noise and turned around to see what had caused the noise.All that was there was a pile of 2x6s or 2x8s and some pipe. Another gentleman came running over and lifted some of the boards and here was Mr. Heger with a very severe head wound.It was very obvious that Mr. Heger was no longer with the living. If he hadn’t been doing his job I probably wouldn’t be here to tell about it!
Thanks, Chuck. We appreciate the firsthand memory.
I was 15 at the time and got there an hour after the incident. Ralph Heger was my Grandfather. My dad, Ralph’s son, was working sound at the Coliseum and rushed to the hospital when he got the word. He and I went back to the grandstand in time to see the crew trying to clean up the blood as there was a show that night. In the aftermath when people were looking for someone to blame my grandfather was said to be responsible but he was the stage manager, not the building manager. Only the fair manager could sign off on the event. Ralph Heger advised them against it. He was only on that side of the stage to ensure nobody got hurt. Thank you Chuck for sharing your brief encounter with Grandpa.
Mr. Edgecomb: Thanks for the note, and our condolences for your loss.
Roland Heger was my grandfather and Ralph’s brother. We have been looking up some family history lately and came across this article. We would love to get in touch with your family. My dad remembers when this happened. We are so sorry for your loss.
Hi Tami. Sorry it took so long to respond. We are always happy to connect with family. There are six of us who called Jack Edgecomb dad, among other things. His brother Jim has a couple kids out there. One sister, Pat Hall has two and another sister, Sharon Waltz has three daughters. My dad, and Jim and Pat are all gone now. Sharon lives in PA. with three girls and their families. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Phone is 217-525-0465. My brother Jack Jr. 217-801-6335, is in touch with Uncle Jim’s daughter and is more up on the family history. Give either of us a call and we can catch up. Thx, Jay
My name is Kim Richno I was 11 yrs old when this tragedy happen it just so happened that my grandma and grandpa (Bill & Eva Cooper ) from the town of Sherman Illinois ,who is in the front row when they fell and hit the guard rail in front of them, my grandma and grandpa had to go home and take a bath , that’s how bad it was , The year 1965 and 66 was a couple of bad years as a kid growing up I lost my father Bill Richno , In 65 in a construction accident two weeks after my dad died my brother-in-law’s brother was killed out on the airport road in a hot rod Chevrolet truck with three of his buddies it was a terrible couple of years God bless everybody they will all be there when it’s time to go home !
My Dad and me, I was 8 yrs old, were in the infield … we loved to watch AJ Foyt and Mario Andretti. the horrible accident cancelled the race I think.
I remember having a date for the Fair’s grandstand show that night in 1966, although I can no longer recall with whom. I arrived after the tragedy, but my memory is that one of the people who fell from the roof landed just in the seats just a little in front of where I later sat. I haven’t thought about that incident in a long time.