By Alesandra Dubin Posted December 16, 2009, 3:27 PM EST
LOS ANGELES Last week, Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic hosted a large-scale event in Mojave to debut its new commercial manned spaceship amid dangerously high winds. Later the same day, those hurricane-force winds reduced the event's main tent to rubble.
As others in the industry speculate about what went wrong, and whether the incident could have been avoided, the vendors involved say they did everything they could have done, and neither event producer Group Delphi nor tent provider Town & Country Event Rentals have regrets about the production.
“We looked at the forecast 10 days out and it looked great. Everything was going pretty good [during the load in]. We started setting up the Tuesday before and all week long [there was] beautiful weather, no wind,” said Town & Country Event Rentals owner Richard LoGuercio, whose company supplied the giant main tent in question, a German-made and engineered Losberger product valued at about $200,000. “Saturday was when all hell broke loose and the winds kicked off. But the tent tops and all the walls were brand new. And we weighted the whole tent down per factory specs. Those are state of the art—some of the best tents that you can buy.”
The event went on as planned on Monday, December 7. According to a statement from Branson released by Virgin, “20 minutes after the last of the guests had been coached away, the main 200-foot tent literally took off.”
The tent was on concrete and was not staked. The team placed 4,000 pounds of weight—in the form of concrete blocks—for each leg, every 16 feet along the perimeter.
“We've heard, ‘You don't know how to set up tents,’ since this happened,“ LoGuercio said, “but I've got guys in the back with 20 to 30 years experience. Am I embarrassed that this thing went down? Absolutely not. Nobody likes to promote this, but I'm confident enough in what we did that I almost want to put it up on our Web site.” Now LoGuercio has 15,000 pounds of recycle-ready aluminum in the yard, and a poster on site that reads: “December 7: A day that will live in infamy. Welcome back heroes,” to show appreciation for his crew who worked under such difficult conditions. “I'm just thrilled and thank God nobody got hurt,” he said.
Justin Hersh, C.E.O. and president of Group Delphi, said there was never any danger to the people involved, even though gear was lost. “We executed the evacuation long before the winds built to the extent they were dangerous. Through the entire event and as long as people were in the tent, the sustained wind never exceeded 30 miles per hour [nor] gusted to more than 38. The large tent was rated safe at 40 for continuous winds and up to gusts of 70. When people were inside, not only were winds not above that, we didn't have forecasts higher than that, and we continually monitored. And it was when we had a forecast for more severe winds that we immediately began our evacuation plan. At that point, between attendees and crew there were in excess of 600 people who were evacuated to buses, which we had already staged should an evacuation become necessary.”
Hersh specifically credits the professionalism of the Virgin Galactic and event teams, plus Production Glue technical director Tom Bussey, Mojave Air and Spaceport general manager Stuart Witt, and Kern County emergency personnel for a safe evacuation.
In support, Virgin Galactic head of marketing production Susan Newsam wrote, “Group Delphi is one of the most professional, creative, and technically knowledgeable production companies I have had the pleasure of working with. As the inevitable challenges and changes arise along the way, options and solutions are always quickly identified and applied with no fuss. Choosing to work with Group Delphi on the SS2 unveil event was, without doubt, absolutely the right business decision for Virgin Galactic.” An email to U.K.-based Virgin Galactic head of press Jackie McQuillan on Tuesday for official comment was not immediately returned.
The folks at Group Delphi point out that despite the difficult weather circumstances, the event fulfilled Virgin’s goals, including to celebrate the arrival of Branson and aircraft designer Burt Rutan, who together unveiled SpaceShipTwo before 800 international guests, including press, future astronauts, accredited space travel agents, and V.I.P.s.
“It would have been Virgin's decision to call off the event. The event went ahead and we just had to deal with it,” said LoGuercio. “The whole party went off, everybody was happy.”
In fact, if the adage about any press being good press holds, the tent’s destruction is bringing more attention to the event, long past the actual day. Virgin even posted a video online showing the moment of the tent’s spectacular, unplanned liftoff. As of Wednesday morning, it had close to 10,000 views on YouTube.
So does the fallout continue? “That's something to be decided. We have insurance,“ said LoGuercio. “It was a $200,000 tent, but I've got insurance.”
More abstractly, the team remembers the stress and strangeness in the face of the wild weather on event day. “A week later we all continue to reflect on those 20 surreal minutes,” said Janine Micucci, an event producer with caterer Along Came Mary, who was among the crew in a last-minute scramble against the impending peril at the event site. “When we were told to evacuate, we never met to come up with a plan but after it was over, we discovered we each took on different tasks. When I came around that corner [to] the kitchen, I found a chain of workers passing food to the [refrigerated] truck from the hot boxes. When the police finally found us, [they] quickly moved us into the production office. Somehow we got all that food onto the truck and closed the door. I think that's when the structure failed right behind us.”
Micucci added, “It was a proud moment to be able to shortly afterward tell Richard Branson that even though there was a lot of damage, we saved the food and as a result, a lot of needy people were going to eat this great food the next day. This is time when you don't want to have to stop to talk. You thankfully just inherently know what you should be doing and trust that all your folks are doing what they should be doing.”