Barry Sullivan knows the death of his son Declan could have been prevented. He knows bad decisions were made and the best safety practices weren't followed. He knows his oldest child never should have been filming a University of Notre Dame football practice from an elevated scissor lift amid a severe wind warning.
And he knows that no lawsuit, finger-pointing or public outrage can change any of it.
In his first extensive interview since his son's death a year ago, Barry Sullivan told the Tribune that his family was never interested in suing the university and has not received a financial settlement from the school. He does not blame the storied college football program for the accident, either.
Rather than allow their grief to manifest itself as anger or legal vengeance, he and his wife, Alison, have devoted the last 12 months to making sure something beneficial comes from their very public tragedy.
"It was not our first impulse to go out and hire a lawyer. That's not the way we're wired," Barry Sullivan said. "We never really felt a reason to pursue any kind of legal action. Why would you do that? ... We didn't want to take resources and energy away from other positive things that might happen by tying up people with lawsuits and other actions."
Declan Sullivan, a 20-year-old business major from suburban Long Grove, was working for the school's athletic department when he went up in a lift to record football practice on Oct. 27, 2010. Though he expressed concerns on social media about the severe wind advisory that day, the team's staff said it was unaware of any warnings.
As gusts reached 53 mph during practice, Sullivan's lift crashed through a fence and landed on a street.
The Indiana Occupational Safety & Health Administration fined the university $42,000 for safety violations stemming from the accident.
Forbes.com last year estimated it could cost the university $30 million if Sullivan's parents sued. The mere suggestion seemed unfair to Declan's father.
The family — whose ties to the campus and its sister school, St. Mary's College, go back several decades — witnessed how much his death distressed the Notre Dame community and had no desire to compound that grief with a lawsuit or public criticism, Barry Sullivan said.
A week after the accident, the university's president, the Rev. John I. Jenkins, sent a letter to students and alumni, expressing his sorrow and accepting personal responsibility for the accident. "Declan Sullivan was entrusted to our care, and we failed to keep him safe," Jenkins wrote.
The letter's sentiment set the tone for Declan's parents' dealings with the university, Sullivan said.
"We saw people that were obviously suffering," he said. "They felt a great sense of responsibility for what happened. How could we add to their pain with displays of anger or anything like that?"
The family also worried that any public comments would interfere with the university's internal investigation, Barry Sullivan said. If the examination was compromised, an opportunity to learn from the mistakes surrounding Declan's death could be lost forever.
The university's investigation found "no one acted in disregard for safety" the day of the accident. Rather, a "sudden and extraordinary" wind and long-standing policies led to Sullivan's death, officials said.
According to the report, the football program's policy was to keep the videographers off the hydraulic lifts if the winds reached more than 35 mph. The weather data accessed by the staff never crossed that threshold, officials said.
In keeping with international standards, the lift industry typically recommends grounding the equipment when winds exceed 28 mph.
Computer forensics showed no one on the staff clicked on a wind advisory icon that warned of possible winds exceeding 50 mph. Declan, however, seemed to be aware of it.
"Gusts of wind up to 60 mph today will be fun at work ... I guess I've lived long enough," he wrote on Twitter shortly before practice.
While on the lift, he tweeted again. "Holy (expletive). Holy (expletive) this is terrifying," he wrote.
Barry Sullivan said his son, who had a tendency to be dramatic, was not meek and would have lowered his lift if he thought he was in danger.
He does not dwell on whether the coaching staff should have done more to keep his child safe.
"I really don't want to be second-guessing what anyone did on that day," he said. "You can't change what happened. Thinking about it that way can only frustrate you."
Brian Kelly, Notre Dame's head football coach, told reporters this week that he still grapples with Sullivan's death, but he has never tried to assess blame.
"Blame is not a word that we feel is appropriate," Kelly said. "We never thought in those terms. We thought in terms of loss and making sure something like this never happens again."
With the Sullivan family's blessing, Notre Dame and the Indiana Department of Labor this summer launched the UpRight! Campaign, which serves as a resource for those who oversee the use of aerial lifts for shooting video and directing.
The campaign also urges access to real-time weather information and the grounding of lifts whenever winds exceed 28 mph.
About 30 people die each year in the United States from aerial lift accidents, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
"They're taking efforts to make sure those messages are heard," said Barry Sullivan, an engineer who has taught at the college level. "That has always been important to us."
In addition to the safety campaign, the family has found other ways to pay tribute to their son. The Declan Drumm Sullivan Memorial Fund has raised more than $100,000 in the last year. While the university and Sullivan's relatives made contributions to the fund, much of the money came from strangers who were moved by the tragedy.
Barry Sullivan said he was overwhelmed by the number of letters that began: "You don't know me, but …"
"This was our experience, but we realized a lot of people were sharing it with us," he said.
The family waited to make a decision on where to donate the money so it could select an organization that best represented Sullivan's spirit. In the end, it decided to contribute to causes that stressed the importance of education.
St. Mary School in Buffalo Grove and Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein — where Sullivan attended — will both receive donations. The primary recipient, however, will be Horizons for Youth, a Chicago-based charity that helps disadvantaged students achieve academic success.
The organization, whose founders include three Notre Dame graduates, offers students need-based scholarships, a summer enrichment program, one-on-one mentoring, tutoring and college preparation courses. The charity's learning center is on the Near West Side, close to Old St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church, where the Sullivans were married and their three children were baptized.
"I don't know if I've met a family who is more generous and gracious," said Audrey George, executive director of Horizons for Youth. "They truly are using their misfortune to create good fortune for others."
The Sullivans, who will continue to oversee the memorial fund, intend to stay involved with the charity and already have plans for a Navy Pier fundraising event in the spring.
"It was a perfect fit for us," Barry Sullivan said. "We want this to be a way to keep his memory and his name alive."
Declan is also being remembered on Notre Dame's South Bend campus, where his younger sister is a sophomore. On Wednesday, the school announced plans for a scholarship in Sullivan's name. The scholarship will be used to assist students who are not only in financial need, but "who also have demonstrated the traits that made Declan original, whether through a particular interest in filmmaking, service to underprivileged youth, creative writing, or other passions," according to the university.
The university dedicated a memorial in Sullivan's honor last Saturday before the football team played the University of Southern California. Located within sight of the street where Sullivan fell, the spot once served as the Sullivans' meeting place after games.
The memorial, which includes a plaque, two benches and a few trees, now offers them a place to sit and recall happier times. Barry Sullivan's eyes filled with tears as he imagined his son's reaction to it.
"Dec would want us to go on and remember him in a positive way," he said. "I'd like to think we're doing that."
Tribune reporter Brian Hamilton contributed.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun