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Pukkelpop tragedy caps dreadful period for outdoor events

Five people died and 75 were injured following the collapse of three stage tents at the Pukkelpop festival in Belgium. The tragedy occurred mere weeks after two serious incidents at US festivals.

At the time of writing, it was reported that five people had died and 75 been injured following the collapse of three stage tents at the Pukkelpop festival in Belgium. The tragedy occurred mere weeks after serious incidents at US festivals, one of which also resulted in multiple fatalities, write David Davies, Marc Maes and Paul Watson.

More than 60,000 people descended on this year’s Pukkelpop, which takes place on a site 40 miles east of Brussels. One of the cornerstone events of the European summer festival scene, Pukkelpop was due to host headliners including Eminem, Foo Fighters and the Ting Tings at its 2011 edition.

But at around 18.30 on the evening of Thursday 18th, the festival and camping site were hit by a huge rain and hailstorm, causing damage to five of the eight stages. Several trees impacted on festival infrastructure, a light/delay tower and tents. Some of the technical equipment was also hit by debris.

In total, three festival stage tents – Chateau, Boiler Room and Wablieft – collapsed during the incident. Those with severe injuries were brought to the Hasselt hospital, while others were taken to the Kiewit Sports complex.

With many festivalgoers leaving the site, the Kiewit area became the scene of huge traffic chaos, with public transport providers urged to lay on additional night trains and buses.

“A crucial element in the chaos was that, with so many youngsters attending the festival, the cell phone network was completely jammed – that’s the case even during a ‘normal’ festival day here, but added to the communication problems in this case,” reported a festivalgoer.

After a period of reflection, organisers decided to abandon the remainder of the event, noting in a statement posted on its website: “Pukkelpop is in deep mourning. We truly sympathise with the families and friends of the victims. Words are not enough. We have struggled with the decision to continue the festival. Therefore we have decided to cancel Pukkelpop 2011. What has happened is very exceptional and could not have been predicted. We are deeply moved by all the spontaneous support the festival goers and the organisation have received.”

In a troubling summer for outdoor events, there have also been two serious incidents at US festivals.
On 17 July, a stage collapsed away from the audience at the Ottawa Bluesfest, 20 minutes into a set by veteran US rock band Cheap Trick. The group had already left the stage when the collapse took place. No one was killed, although several people were treated for injuries.

Less than four weeks later, on 14 August, a much more serious episode took place at the Indiana State Fair. At around 9pm, the fair’s rigging and country music duo Sugarland’s equipment buckled and fell under strong winds. In total, five people died and more than 40 others were injured.

Local Governor Mitch Daniels called it a “freakish accident” – a strikingly similar description to the one offered by Cisco Ottawa Bluesfest executive director Mark Monahan, who described the Ottawa stage collapse as “a freak situation”.

Mid-America Sound Corp. put up the stage, and is reported to be launching an internal investigation to try and work out just what went wrong. PSNE tried to contact several UK rigging and staging companies; however, none of them wished to comment. Given the gravity of the situation, until the results of the investigation are published along with an engineering and structural report, perhaps this is understandable.

However, Andy Lenthall, general manager of the Production Services Association ( told us: “Every temporary structure has limitations. It is down to event organisers to be fully aware of those limitations, choose a structure that is appropriate and, crucially, manage the use of the structure. Looking at the footage of the tragedy in Indiana, it seems that some members of the audience had decided it was time to evacuate rather than the organisers. That is simply wrong.”

Investigations are already underway by the Indiana Occupational Health and Safety Administration and the State Fire Marshall’s office. Meanwhile, acts associated with the event have rallied round in an attempt to raise money for those affected by the tragedy. Maroon 5 – which had been due to play the Fair with touring partners Train – has announced that its efforts have already yielded a fund of at least $350,000.

While the circumstances of each incident are different, collectively they raise troubling questions about safety protocol and emergency measures at outdoor events. Commenting on the Cheap Trick website after the Ottawa incident, the band’s manager, Dave Frey, called on the live industry to take urgent action. “We simply want to know: what are the companies and organisers doing to protect the next act and the next audience?” he said. “Every act and every fan ought to be asking the same question when attending an outside musical event.”

Image credit: Arne Maes