Perhaps the most tragic incident occurred in July 2011. That’s when a Texas man died from injuries he suffered after falling nearly 20 feet from the stands while trying to catch a baseball tossed by then-Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton toward the man’s 6-year-old son.
The two most recent deadly cases came in the last few months, when fans fell to their deaths from an elevated pedestrian walkway at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park on Sept. 8 and from the upper deck at Atlanta’s Turner Field on Aug. 12.
Sunday’s far less tragic incident here, with one fan tumbling about 20 to 25 feet from the 300 level and landing on another fan in Ralph Wilson Stadium, was just the latest case of fans being injured or dying in falls at large public sporting events.
In the last decade, since July 2003, there have been 39 cases in America of people falling either from one seating level to another or down a stadium staircase, escalator or elevated walkway, according to the Institute for the Study of Sports Incidents. Those cases don’t include fights, assaults or other violent acts among fans.
Fourteen of those 39 incidents led to someone dying.
“The 14 people who died weren’t going there thinking this was their last day,” said Alana K. Penza, the institute’s director. “It’s not that many deaths, but with one death, we need to review it and see what can be done.”
The institute and the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security, both affiliated with the University of Southern Mississippi, analyze such incidents at public sporting events, while also encouraging leagues, teams and stadiums to enact changes that make such injuries or deaths more avoidable.
The 14 deaths may surprise people, but that’s also 14 out of probably a few billion people who have attended public sporting events across the nation in the last 10 years.
In Sunday’s incident at Ralph Wilson Stadium, 28-year-old Robert Hopkins of Grand Island slid down a railing before falling down to the second level. Hopkins apparently lost his job as a digital art director at Eric Mower + Associates as a result of his actions.
Penza found four other sliding falls in her list of 39 incidents. But those other four came from falls down staircases, escalators or walkways.
“This is the first one that I have seen where someone slid down a railing in the stands” before falling, Penza said.
In Sunday’s mishap, both Hopkins and the other injured man were treated for a few hours before being released from Erie County Medical Center.
Penza, who was well aware of Sunday’s incident but didn’t profess to know all the details, was asked what might be learned from it.
“I’m sure they’ll look at the railing heights in the area,” she replied. “And if alcohol is involved, how do we keep people who are too intoxicated from coming into the venues?”
But she suggested that the responsibility for avoiding such incidents doesn’t fall completely on teams and stadium personnel. That’s why safety advocates applaud the National Football League teams’ codes of conduct.
“You can’t watch every single individual and protect every single individual,” she said. “You have to put some responsibility on the individual to be responsible for their actions and practice safe judgment.”
And sometimes nobody may be at fault, as with the case at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Texas, on July 7, 2011.
When left-fielder Hamilton threw the first foul ball that night to the ball girl, he heard a fan ask for the next one. He turned around and nodded to Shannon Stone. The next foul ball he got, in the second inning, he flipped to Stone, a local firefighter who fell over the left-field railing to the concrete surface about 20 feet below. He died later at a local hospital.
Less than two weeks later, the Rangers announced they would raise all their protective stadium railings to a height of 42 inches. Previously, the heights had varied, anywhere from 30 to 42 inches, according to media accounts.
In other cases, intoxication remains one of the obvious causes of fans falling from one level to another or down an escalator or walkway. Sometimes, though, police and media accounts of such incidents don’t state whether the person was drunk.
Authorities here have not said whether they believe drinking contributed to Hopkins’ fall, and they pointed out that that might not be relevant in determining possible criminal charges.
Law-enforcement sources have said investigators are eyeing possible third-degree assault and reckless endangerment charges against Hopkins.
Across the nation, the Institute for the Study of Sports Incidents can’t definitively say how many of the 39 falls were alcohol-related. Intoxication was listed as a cause of at least seven of those incidents, Penza said, but she wouldn’t speculate on what percentage might be alcohol-related.
Baseball, at least when it comes to stadium falls, appears to be the most dangerous sport.
Of the 39 such incidents in the last 10 years, 22 occurred at baseball games, 15 at football games and one each at basketball and tennis venues, according to Penza’s figures.
Baseball, of course, is the only sport where fans routinely reach out to catch a souvenir, either a foul ball or home run. It’s part of the magical multigenerational allure of the sport.
“When we think of baseball in America, we think of popcorn and hot dogs and fathers going to the game to catch a foul ball for their child,” Penza said, citing the special father-son bonding in Shannon Stone’s case. “That American dream was shattered by him falling, him dying and his 6-year-old son watching it.
Falls by the numbers
39: Instances of significant falls at stadiums in the U.S. since 2003
14: Fatalities as a result of injuries sustained during those 39 falls
9 of 11: Falls since the start of 2012 that occurred at football games
67%: Amount of time “human action” was listed as the cause of the falls.