More than a million fans trying to get tickets to Bruce Springsteen's Aug. 5 concert at RFK Stadium disrupted telephone service in Washington and five mid-Atlantic states for several hours yesterday morning. Thousands more swarmed to Washington area ticket sales locations, gobbling up 49,000 tickets in less than 90 minutes.
But it was the demand for the 3,000 tickets available by phone that jammed circuits from Virginia to New Jersey.
"You would have this same type of thing happen if there was a disaster. We experienced a similar heavy volume of calls after the Air Florida crash and after President Reagan was shot," said AT&T spokesman Marty Szostek.
Szostek said that between 10:30 and 11:30 a.m., the long-distance switching stations in Washington, Baltimore and Arlington handled 1,952,000 calls. In the same hour last Monday, they handled 858,000 calls. Final figures for the entire day, which won't be available until later this week, may show that there were 2 million extra calls, he said.
"My understanding is that the calls were coming from everywhere in the mid-Atlantic region, all up and down the East Coast," Szostek said.
Locally, C&P officials were still getting reports of trouble with delayed dial tones late yesterday afternoon.
Even as Springsteen Fever descended on Washington, thousands were left disappointed despite ticket vigils at 26 locations.
The Washington date marks the rock star's first stadium concert in the United States; he has been selling out covered sports arenas, such as the Capital Centre, where he played four dates last August.
Yesterday, many calls to federal offices and private industry weren't going through and local businesses found themselves unable to make long-distance calls. What one AT&T service representative described as a "mass calling situation" left thousands of customers receiving busy signals or recorded messages that all circuits were jammed.
"I think we're not going to pay our phone bill," said Williams & Connolly receptionist Ellie Egan, who spent the morning dealing with disgruntled lawyers trying to make calls. "I would say Mr. Springsteen should pay the bill for all the inconvenience. We'll get even with them somehow."
Bill Peterson of Telecommunications Concepts Inc., which services business phones for such companies as the American Automobile Association, Federal Express and Dean Witter Reynolds, said that when he came in to work, there were 50 trouble calls, five times the normal number. "After a severe electrical storm, we might have 10 trouble calls. We've never experienced anything like this."
In Richmond, WTVR-TV, the CBS affiliate, flashed a bulletin during a broadcast of "The Price Is Right" that "ticket sales to a Washington, D.C., rock concert have jammed Virginia phone lines."
AT&T's Szostek said workers at two electronic switching centers "began to notice a heavy volume of calls starting at about 8:30 this morning," 90 minutes before tickets went on sale. "It started to subside shortly before noon," he said.
The government-only Federal Telecommunications System operated normally. Some problems were reported at the White House by staffers trying calls on the commercial lines, but presidential priority lines operated by the Army Signal Corps remained intact.
White House spokesman Larry Speakes cited Springsteen ticket calls as the reason reporters had trouble reaching the press office. But he said White House communications were not affected. "We have ways to get around it," he said.
According to Ticket Center president Ralph Beyers, tickets were selling at the rate of 400 a minute. Buyers could purchase up to eight tickets, each for $18.50, and many did. At the Capital Centre, 500 people showed up for the 2 a.m. lottery listing, and 6,500 tickets were sold to 3,000 people by noon, according to spokesman Matt Amodeo.
"There's never been a concert that had this effect or had this kind of response," said Dave Williams of Cellar Door Productions, which is handling the Washington date. Yesterday in Philadelphia, 140,000 tickets were sold for Springsteen's Aug. 14 and 15 concerts; another 70,000 were snapped up Sunday for his Cleveland date; and 300,000 were sold Friday in the New York area for his concerts at the Meadowlands Aug. 18, 19, 21 and 22.
Yesterday, told that all the calling was to purchase only 3,000 tickets, distributed by the Chargit service, AT&T's Szostek laughed. "There's got to be a better distribution system," he said. "That's my formal reaction." Meanwhile, Szostek said his wife Nancy left home at 5 a.m. yesterday to stand in line for Springsteen tickets -- and came away empty-handed. She was not alone.
RFK Stadium drew the largest crowds. "They were great," said Jim Dalrymple, stadium general manager. "They policed themselves, tried to clean up and maintain to a degree. They had a good time." By Sunday night, the crowd there had grown to about 1,500 from 500 on Friday.
Dalrymple reported that Dolores Betriccione of Philadelphia, who had been first in line since July 14, got front row, stage right, tickets. And just after noon, Randy Bullock, 20, a bank teller in Olney, and No. 447 in line, walked out triumphant, clutching the last Springsteen ticket sold at the stadium.
"He was ecstatic," said Bullock's best friend, Nick Vucich, No. 448. "And I was ecstatic, till I realized he said ticket, as in one." But Vucich, who said he's still Bullock's best friend, added, "He was holding up the ticket. I got to touch it. I got to hold it. That's my only claim to fame."
By late morning, word of the sellout spread through the line, a rumor no one wanted to believe.
"They were shouting 'We want Bruce,' " Dalrymple reported, "and they wouldn't leave. They were orderly but a bit rowdy with catcalls. We gave them a half-hour" to disperse. At about 1:10, about a dozen U.S. park policemen on motorcycles roared into the parking lot. "There are no more tickets . . . Clear the parking lot. You've got two minutes," Lt. Carl Clipper announced. No one was arrested.
The sellathon took Montgomery County police to three locations -- Lake Forest and Montgomery malls and the Devonshire town house development in Bethesda. There was one arrest -- in the Montgomery Mall parking lot, where one man who had been waiting in line was arrested on drunk driving charges, according to Lt. Rudolph Werner.
At Lake Forest Mall in Gaithersburg, about 1,500 people gathered in line at Hecht's, according to Lt. Jim O'Connell. Shortly after 9 a.m., 15 officers -- the entire Germantown District shift -- were dispatched to the mall. "They only let about 70 people in to buy tickets," said O'Connell. "There were a lot of sad faces but no problems."