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  • The Post's Gene Weingarten, a veteran of the original festival, can't help but laugh at today's Woodstockers.

  • Woodstock '99 Goes Up in Smoke

    Woodstock Festival
    A man stands in front of a bonfire set by vandals at Woodstock '99 on Sunday. (AP/Observer-Dispatch)
    By Alona Wartofsky
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, July 27, 1999; Page A1

    ROME, N.Y., July 26 Gusting winds scattered the clouds of smoke that hung today over the site of Woodstock '99, but the disappointment was not so easily dissipated as organizers struggled to explain why the summer's biggest music festival ended in chaos.

    "I'm bummed big time," promoter John Scher said this morning. "I don't know if we'll ever know why these kids did this. I really don't think there was a kid out there that wanted there to be mass destruction."

    The three-day festival, which drew more than 200,000 at Griffiss Park, a former air base, veered out of control Sunday night as it drew to a close.

    By this afternoon, the site reeked of smoke, garbage and human waste. The remains of 12 burned-out refrigeration trailers were lined up a quarter mile from the East Stage. Several of them still smoldered. A line of more than a hundred state trooper cruisers formed a barrier between the concert area and the adjacent campgrounds. No one was allowed to return to the concert site after leaving.

    A number of ATMs were battered during the fracas, and as of this afternoon, one bank machine was still missing.

    The trouble started before midnight Sunday with several impromptu bonfires lit during the Red Hot Chili Peppers' set. At first, it seemed to be another spontaneous celebration. But soon the fires raged out of control as people removed sections of the "Peace Fence" erected to keep gate crashers out and threw them into the flames.

    When police and firefighters attempted to put out the largest blaze, which burned along the north wall of the festival grounds, they were pelted with bottles and rocks. Festival-goers then knocked down a light tower, tipped over a car and a trailer, looted and burned vendors' booths, and then set fire to nearby trailers.

    Although hundreds were involved in the melee, police said they made seven arrests Sunday night. Charges included resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, petty larceny and reckless endangerment of property. Seven suspects were taken to the Oneida County jail, all of them men.

    Police said today that they still had not tallied the injuries, but Scher said that more people were injured Saturday night than on Sunday. The Saturday night lineup was a testosterone-driven metalfest that included the groups Limp Bizkit, Rage Against the Machine and Metallica. Limp Bizkit's set was interrupted when moshers pulled down a barrier around a sound and light tower and used the wooden planks for crowd surfing.

    "There were no serious injuries. Thank God nobody was hurt. Thank God nobody was killed," Scher said. "It could have been tragic, and thank God that it wasn't."

    According to Scher, Woodstock '99 cost approximately $38 million to produce. He said it was too early to determine how the reimbursement costs for the damage and overtime hours of police and emergency services would affect the festival's finances. "At the moment it's not a profit situation," he said. Tickets for the three-day festival, whichfeatured dozens of top music acts, sold for $150 plus service charges.

    At a news conference today, co-promoter Michael Lang, an organizer of the original 1969 Woodstock, insisted that the mayhem that marred this year's event does not mean the end of the Woodstock anniversary concerts. "I would not condemn this crowd" because of the actions of a few, he said. "I don't think it was an anti-Woodstock statement. I think it was an anti-Establishment statement."

    It was not lost on anyone that Woodstock, once a symbol of the counterculture, was saved by the police. "There was a time in my life when I didn't trust anyone over 30 and thought that all cops were pigs," Scher said. "The cops here were fantastic."

    Kenneth Donohue, the festival's security director, defended the emphasis on protecting the stages Sunday night. "Some things are symbolic," he said.

    "If you lose the stage," said Lang, "then you lose the entire crowd."

    He also defended the decision to allow some private security guards to leave on Sunday afternoon. Lang said he had no second thoughts about allowing the Red Hot Chili Peppers to continue playing as the fires burned. The band's set included Jimi Hendrix's "Fire."

    "It was a preordained set list," Lang said. "It had nothing to do with the fact that there was a fire burning at the time."

    In the hours before dawn today, the festival site resembled a surreal war zone. Fires were still burning, and the sound of sirens echoed across the runways of the former airfield.

    Halfway between the East and West stages, a line of helmeted state troopers holding wooden batons stood arms' length apart. They created an effective barrier to keep people from entering the east side of the grounds and from setting fire to the propane tanks in the vending areas along the southern wall. An officer wearing a bulletproof vest distributed bottled water to the troopers.

    A hundred yards in front of them, a crowd of youths had formed a defiant drummers' circle. They repeated wordless chants and banged on empty 55-gallon metal trash cans. Some danced to the pounding rhythms, others lay on the ground, staring dreamily into the increasingly hazy sky. Several women wielding glow sticks danced naked on the trash cans.

    The night was marked by several confrontations between festival-goers and police. Two long-haired young women in batik skirts argued with police. Soon after, four baton-wielding officers chased a skinny young man into the drummers' circle before a lieutenant ordered them to retreat.

    Such images suggested a different time and a different place. It almost seemed that both sides were playing out roles that had been written by a previous generation. One yound woman was dragged away from the site after pushing an officer. "[Expletive] pigs!" she shrieked.

    One of the officers who helped pull her away from the site wiped his hands after delivering her to another trooper. "Why don't you go to Canada or something?" he yelled.

    A little later, Guy Salesse, 29, ignored the tensions and jerked his body back and forth to the drumbeats. "We don't want any trouble," he said. "We just want to enjoy what's left of the festival."

    Not much was left, though. The event's final rave party, slated to take place Sunday night, was aborted. "They should have had the rave so we could use up all our energy," said Steve Blackwell, 25, of Ocean City, Md., as he sat on the ground and watched the drummers. "Look at this. This is the people's concert."

    The air was thick with smoke, limiting visibility and making breathing distinctly uncomfortable.

    Vendors sat in chairs, protecting their booths and watching the show. "We lost a million and a half bucks tonight," said vendor Russ Mour. "The trucks burned for more than 35 minutes before they even got a fire truck out there."

    Vendor Michael Sozek was still there this afternoon. "This is a war zone," said Sozek, 38, shaking his head. "You didn't get this with the old Woodstock crowd. This new rock-and-roll is all about a bunch of butt-heads. Smoking a joint isn't enough for them."

    "They were trapped in here," said vendor Bill Hemsley. "The haves were the vendors. The have-nots were the people. When they ran out of money, they took what they wanted."

    Throughout the festival, fans groused about food prices, though they were similar to those at other major concerts and sporting events.

    The concert "was too big to control, too many people," said Sozek. "It was a money grab by the promoters. They were too greedy."

    Hundreds of stragglers remained in the campsite. Rich MacGregory, 18, sat in a latticed lawn chair, surrounded by fetid garbage.

    Wasn't he ready to go home?

    He looked up, dazed. "Do we have to leave?"

    © 1999 The Washington Post Company

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