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Thursday, October 28, 2010
Updated: October 29, 4:31 PM ET
Declan Sullivan remembered at Mass

Associated Press

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Tony Michluda and Declan Sullivan lived in the same residence hall at Notre Dame and used to have long talks about their future. Sullivan "was always interested in who you were," Michluda said.

He and his sullen classmates gathered Thursday night for a special Mass to remember Sullivan a day after he died in an accident during a Fighting Irish football practice. The 20-year-old junior was videotaping the team from a tower when his hydraulic scissor lift fell over during another windy day in the Midwest.

Sullivan, a film student from the Chicago suburb of Long Grove, Ill., was taken to a hospital, but was soon pronounced dead.

"He loved Notre Dame football and he loved film and he combined those two," Michluda said.

While students at the iconic university mourned the loss of one of their own, schools across the country announced they would examine their policies for the popular hydraulic lifts and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick promised to investigate what happened.

Speaking to reporters for the first time since the accident, Swarbrick described a normal practice that quickly became chaotic. He said he was walking along the football field Wednesday when suddenly, the wind picked up and equipment began flying.

"I turned to face north and experienced a pretty extraordinary burst of wind. Things started flying by me that had been stationary for all of practice -- Gatorade containers, towels, etc. I noticed the netting by the goal post start to bend dramatically and I heard a crash," he said.

Swarbrick said training staff, medical trainers, coaches and players responded to Sullivan, but after emergency workers arrived, the team went back to the field so the rescuers could help the student. Swarbrick said he received a call from the ambulance before it arrived at the hospital that Sullivan was no longer breathing.

Most such lifts extend to about 40 feet, but Swarbrick said he did not know how high Sullivan was when the machine fell over, and it was unclear who authorized Sullivan to go up in it.

As a student worker, Sullivan reported to a video coordinator associated with the football team. Swarbrick said the decision to practice outdoors is left up to individual athletic programs.

A workplace safety expert said the lift should never have been used in such blustery conditions.

"Somebody at Notre Dame in supervision or management should have looked at these conditions and said, 'We need to lower this and you need to get out of this scissor lift. It's unsafe for you to be in there,' " said W. Jon Wallace, a workplace safety consultant with Workplace Group LLC, a Chapel Hill, N.C.-based consortium of companies with expertise in occupational health and safety.

Just before the practice began, Sullivan posted Twitter messages in which he said "Gusts of wind up to 60 mph today will be fun at work ... I guess I've lived long enough."

Less than an hour before the accident, he tweeted again, saying it was "terrifying" to be on the tower in the high winds.

Ellie Hall, another Notre Dame film student who had friends in common with Sullivan, told The Associated Press in an e-mail that she was "horrified" by the "eerily prophetic nature" of the tweets, which she captured in a screen shot and later described in a contribution to the Huffington Post.

Within hours of Sullivan's death, his family made his Facebook profile, and the messages, private, Hall said.

Swarbrick said he was aware of the tweets and promised to look into "all the dynamics" that preceded Sullivan's death.

About an hour after the fallen tower was hauled away on a flatbed truck, students packed a 1,000-seat campus basilica for the special Mass. Hundreds more stood outside and listened to the service through a speaker system.

Sullivan was remembered as an ambitious student who was involved in many activities, especially those that involved telling stories through film.

"Those who did not know Declan might be inclined to say that capturing stories through the lens of the camera was ultimately what robbed him of his life," the Rev. Tom Doyle, vice president of student affairs, said during the homily. But he quickly added that they would be wrong.

"Telling stories through the lens of a camera was how Declan lived. It's not how he died."

Some held hands as they sang hymns or hugged in the aisle as they went to take Holy Communion. Mass ended with students putting their arms around each other and swaying as they sang the alma mater, which is also sung after every home football game.

Nate Garrison, 22, a Notre Dame graduate who used to live in Fisher Hall, said Sullivan was funny and energetic. "He lived his life to the fullest every moment," Garrison said.

Sullivan's parents met with school officials Thursday, and the family had many questions about his death, his uncle Mike Miley told The Associated Press.

For now, the family wants to remember and celebrate Sullivan's life. "He always brought joy to people, and that's how we're remembering him," Miley said.