Two years ago, Sullivan’s 20-year old son, Declan, was a junior working in the football team’s video department. He ascended a hydraulic lift on a dangerously windy day in October 2010 — there was a severe wind advisory and gusts reached 53 mph during practice — and died when the tower toppled, crashing through a fence and onto a street.
The Notre Dame football program has come a long way in recent years, from mediocrity to relevance to dominance, and will take on Alabama in Monday’s BCS title game. But the journey the Sullivan family has made is not something that can be measured as easily. Two years later, they’ve found ways to keep their son’s memory alive.
Declan’s parents still live near Chicago. Barry is an engineer by trade, and Allison is a physician. They don’t blame the Fighting Irish football program or the school that was so important to their son. If anything, Barry Sullivan said, the success Notre Dame has had this season has helped them feel closer to Declan.
“It’s a positive experience for us. Right after the accident, I kind of wondered, ‘Will we ever be able to enjoy a football game, enjoy being on the campus?’ ” Sullivan said. “But we really have. I’m glad we’ve been able to do that.”
“I’d have to say the experience, if anything has drawn us closer” to the school.
In the days following the accident, critics were eager to point fingers and assign culpability. Forbes.com estimated the accident could cost Notre Dame $30 million. But the Sullivan family wasn’t interested in wrongful-death lawsuits or taking down a beloved institution. They wanted to make sure what happened to Declan didn’t happen to anyone else. And they wanted to make sure Declan’s memory lived on. The school helped them do both.
“It never leaves you,” Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly told reporters last fall. “We lost a young man. You never forget about that. . . . Blame is not a word that we feel is appropriate. We never thought in those terms. We thought in terms of loss and making sure something like this never happens again.”
The school conducted a six-month investigation and acknowledged insufficient procedures and safeguards. The Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the university $42,000 for safety violations, and the Indiana Department of Labor helped organize a national safety campaign for aerial lifts run. Notre Dame launched a Web site to raise awareness of aerial-lift safety, LiftUpRight.org.
Since Sullivan’s accident, many schools have abandoned the hydraulic lifts altogether. The University of Florida spent more than a half-million dollars to install sturdy, permanent towers. At Notre Dame, the video department now uses remote-controlled cameras to record practices.