Saturday @ Lollapalooza: Crowds swell as night falls

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BY ANDERS SMITH LINDALL For the Sun-Times

If no one was seriously injured Saturday night at Lollapalooza, it was only thanks to good fortune.

Just hours after a powerful thunderstorm forced Grant Park’s evacuation, a new danger presented itself on the ground leading up to the delayed performance by the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Extreme crowding among the throng of readmitted fans plus a new, more confining array of fences coupled to create scary bottlenecks of shoving bodies on the two staircases that connect Hutchinson Field with Columbus Drive on the west.

The circumstances closely resembled foot-traffic jams on the same staircases that played a role in trampling incidents during Rage Against the Machine’s infamous set at Lollapalooza four years ago. In that case, “Concertgoers trying to go up a set of cement steps were pushed backwards or blocked from exiting as a bull rush of male fans barreled down the steps, knocking people over like dominoes,” MTV reported.

Saturday night, I discovered the steps were impassably crowded shortly before 9 p.m. Walking toward Hutchinson Field to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers, I found foot traffic on Columbus Drive as heavy as I’ve ever seen it. Then I saw people coming over the six-foot fence out of the VIP area onto Columbus. Why would someone climb out of the VIP area? Because, I later realized, they had been stranded in the bottleneck on the other side of the area, and climbing into it must have seemed the only way out.

Here’s the crowd of people jamming the walkway on the Columbus (west) side:

Walking further north on Columbus, I found the second walkway and staircase also blocked by a solid crowd of people. I photographed women climbing the fence to get out of the crowd:

I finally accessed Hutchinson Field by walking all the way to its north end, then made my way back toward the stairs to see the situation from the field side. The stairs were completely full of people trying to exit and meeting the crush trying to enter. Hundreds of people were pushing in both directions and few were able to move.

Over the next several minutes, before and during my own attempt to exit the field — first up the stairs and then up the muddy hillside — I witnessed many people (mostly women) hyperventilating or crying for fear of being trapped. I saw, heard and felt many people (mostly men) shouting and pushing against the crush of bodies, nearly losing my own footing several times.

I saw extreme examples of moronic behavior that threatened to make the frightening situation truly chaotic, including a man who hurled two partially full cans of beer into the crowd, and two couples who measured white powder from a vial and snorted it off the backs of their hands.

I saw groups of people holding hands or locking arms to support one another as bodies pushed against them from every direction. I saw people scaling light towers, climbing trees, jumping fences and dismantling sections of waist-high barricade to escape the shoving. I was approached by a shaken couple who claimed someone tried to steal their bag in the crush.

How did this happen? It seemed obvious that there were far too many people trying to get to Hutchinson Field at once, with inadequate access to do so. There is no way that tens of thousands of people can share two staircases without causing a bottleneck. But the VIP cabanas that line most of the hill combine with new fencing added this year — ostensibly to protect trees, shrubs and grounds from foot traffic — to funnel the huge crowds into just these two confined areas.

What’s more, I saw little or no police or security personnel in the area. Their authority has to be used to keep these exits clear. Aside from the threat of a crowd surge resulting in people trampled or crushed, the blocked exits could have prevented emergency personnel from being able to respond immediately to a medical or security situation on the field.

I didn’t see and barely heard the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I did experience a scary and potentially tragic situation that should be prevented going forward.

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