Lessons learned from Bluesfest stage collapse

I’ve been relatively lucky. I’ve had difficulties in my life, dealt with deaths both timely and untimely, illnesses that hit me and those I love.

But I guess the closest I’ve been to a disaster on the music scene was last year’s torrential rain at the Ottawa Folk Festival. (The dimension of the OFF disaster was mostly financial, though).

So until last night, I really had no idea what a disaster looked like through my own eyes. That’s when the main stage collapsed at Bluesfest at around 7:25.

I had gone with my partner to see Cheap Trick, an act I’d never seen, and we were likely in for some of Death Cab For Cutie too. The Bluesfest this year had been quite a success, as far as I could tell. I had seen some new acts that I wasn’t familiar with and liked, I’d seen some acts I was more than familiar with, and some musical friends had performed.

But as we watched Rick Nielsen mug his way through the early part of the set, a tweet scrolled across the giant screen saying something about a thunderstorm warning. We turned around to see a line of bruise-black clouds heading south towards us from across the Ottawa River, and decided to head to the War Museum to stay dry rather than get soaked.

As we headed to the museum, we were delayed at a security / ticket-scanning checkpoint that was bogging down with others thinking as we were. We turned around to see the stage collapse. We didn’t hear the screams you can hear on some videos of the event. I felt my heart sink and my adrenaline jump. I was sure someone had to have been killed.

We walked-ran to the museum and went inside, where I ran into singer-songwriter Chris Page. He was there with friends, and looked as freaked out as I felt. His arms were out in gooseflesh. The rain began to pelt down, and I became concerned that we were about to experience a tornado.

The War Museum PA opened up and asked people to move into the parking garages, and I realized the glass walls were not something you wanted thousands of people around if indeed this was going to get worse.

So we went to the parking garage, which felt safer, but left us totally cut off from communications. Nobody had phone connectivity, radio reception was bad to none. After about 15 minutes, someone came down and spoke to a woman near us in her minivan with her kids. She said he had heard the whole event was cancelled.

We went up the stairs, where I saw that it was still raining and that the other main stage was still up, and that the speaker columns had been lowered.

Volunteer security were advising people to leave the site, and people were streaming in the rain up to the OC Transpo bus stops.

We went home and started looking for news of the Bluesfest stage collapse. As I write this, I understand that four people were taken to hospital last night, and that they’ve been released by lunch hour on Monday.

So. What is there to learn here from what I experienced?

  • Make the hard call. I’m sure nobody at the Bluesfest wanted to cut the show short. But they did. And I’m damn glad they did.
  • Accept that early media and social media will get things wrong. I saw reports online with everything from no injuries to Robin Zander’s leg being broken to eight in hospital. I also saw people within an hour of the incident complaining online about refunds.
  • Have a disaster plan in place. Everything from security to evacuation to communications. I’m not familar with the Bluesfest plan, and I only have the perspective of an audience member. But the urge to panic in the audience was controlled. Nobody got run over or trampled. The museum seemed prepared (although PAs in the parking garage might be a good idea). Police and fire are praising the festival’s volunteers and security.
  • Be quick, but not TOO quick to make official statements. Get information out as you can confirm it; but don’t overcommit to information.
  • Be ready to accept bad taste. I heard bad jokes being made in the Museum. Some of that I attribute to adrenalin rushes. I saw tasteless comments on Twitter and Facebook. Some people find potential tragedy a source of humour. Ignore them.

As a board member for the Ottawa Folk Festival, I was shaken by what I saw last night. We who love music get to enjoy people making it all summer long at festivals. It’s supposed to be fun and carefree and creative. But it can turn dark and dangerous sometimes.

And even though disaster is thankfully relatively rare, it needs to be prepared for and anticipated.

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  1. avatar
    Dr Mike 20 July, 2011 at 19:58

    Good report. I was there and it apepared to be what is called a microblast, basically what I term a vertical tornado. I was at the back near the paramedic tent. i saw a tsunami like wave of dust about 10-15 meters wide. It did not affect the souvenir or beer tents and the otehr stages so I presume it had just touched down and was uni-directional towards the stage that came down.
    It was a violent short burst of maybe 15 seconds. The stage did nto twist and turn as in gusts but went right over. People were told to elave after the sudden increase in wind. As a dentist with miltiary casualty training i volunteered to help.Several nurses dida s well. The crowd was controled and well guided out bys ecurity adn volunteers. The stage site was well managed by police paramedics security and volunteers. I was on the band bus with a paramedic when it was reported the elad singer was injured. he had a slight bump on the ehad but appeared okay. He also had a sore leg. I gave them teh regat news that all teh crew and staff were accounted for. They were obviously stressed and this news seemed to calm them. I spent some time talking them down, and when I left they seemed pelased with the efforts of the festival crew.

  2. avatar
    margot rogers 22 July, 2011 at 01:20

    thanks for the update….I heard about it 1st on the radio (CBC) adn tried to piece together what’d happened, so thank you for your article. I did see that little 10-second clip on youtube and it was just astonishing. I live in Vancouver now , but i grew up in Ottawa, so I know about fast-acting storms! Well, bye for now! -Margot 🙂

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