Officials Didn't See Woodstock '99 Fires As Safety Risk At First

Sixty people hurt and seven arrested in resulting riot.

ROME, N.Y. — Police and firefighters did not immediately extinguish the blazes set by fans while the Red Hot Chili Peppers played the final set at Woodstock '99 because they didn't consider them a significant hazard and they believed firefighters might endanger themselves by going into a hostile crowd, according to the ranking police official at the site.

The fires spread and led to rioting and vandalism in which seven people were arrested and 60 people were hospitalized late Sunday and early Monday, Woodstock organizers and public officials said Monday morning (July 26).

The most serious injury occurred when a group of festival-goers near the west stage pushed over a house trailer, which landed on top of a woman. The woman broke her leg, according to Woodstock founder and co-promoter Michael Lang. Neither he nor other officials provided details on any other injuries.

About 500 police officers were called to the scene, and it took more than six hours to quell the disturbance and put out the fires. But four of the five officials who addressed reporters at a packed news conference Monday bristled at the suggestion that the incident could be called a riot.

The fifth, New York State Police Superintendent James W. McMann, disagreed. "It would not be an exaggeration to describe it as a riot," he said.

John Scher, who promoted the festival with Lang, downplayed the melee by comparing Woodstock to other large-scale events. "There's been much much worse in Europe at soccer games — [and] it wasn't nearly as bad as Altamont," he said, referring to the infamous 1969 Rolling Stones concert in northern California during which a fan was stabbed to death by Hell's Angels acting as venue security.

But Scher said Sunday night's events made him question whether he would participate in another Woodstock. "I wouldn't want to do it again unless I felt completely confident we could make everything work," he said.

Lang blamed the riot on what he called a tiny percentage of the audience. "I certainly don't condemn this crowd for the f--- up of a few assh----," he said. "There were 50 to 100 people determined to screw this up at the end."

Lang, who also promoted the original Woodstock in 1969, said he saw groups of people running through the crowd, deliberately trying to stir up unrest.

But he said it would be nearly impossible to catch the perpetrators, since there were an estimated 150,000 people on-site when the fires started.

The seven arrests the police did make included four for rioting in the second degree, one for criminal mischief and two for disorderly conduct, which involved 18- and 20-year-old males accused of throwing objects at security guards.

Thomas Riley, 35, of Canton, Ohio, one of the four accused of rioting, allegedly charged police lines three times despite orders to disperse. He was also charged with resisting arrest.

Another accused rioter, David Hyyti, 29, of Revere, Mass., is alleged to have stolen camping equipment from a tractor trailer, police said. He was also accused of possessing marijuana and psychedelic mushrooms.

Daniel Bernier, 19, of Tiverton, R.I., was charged with criminal mischief after he allegedly caused $15,000 worth of damage to a television transmission van used by WHEC, an NBC affiliate, police said.

All the suspects were taken to Oneida County Jail.

McMann defended the police officers' use of pepper spray and batons against festival-goers. "There was no unnecessary use of force," he said. "I think there was great restraint used, considering the violence that was shown against us."

Some fans pelted police with rocks and bottles, he said.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers left the stage immediately after their performance, which ended with a cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Fire," and were off the Woodstock site within minutes, according to Gayle Fine, a spokesperson for the Red Hot Chili Peppers' management firm. She said the group had no comment on the situation.

The scene on the grounds "was a madhouse," said Judy Theall, manager at American Corner Cafe Deli, which operated three sandwich booths and a water booth. "They were jumping over the vendors' booths trying to take their money, burning the tables."

She said security officials told vendors to shut down around 10:30 p.m. Sunday because festival-goers were ransacking booths and stealing money.

"Everyone kind of flew out of there," Theall said. "We got out of there fast enough. They did destroy one of our water booths — tore the tent down, broke all the tables."

Kathy O'Rourke, director of the emergency department at Rome Memorial Hospital, said 322 people, mostly Woodstock attendees, sought emergency care between Thursday and Monday morning, and there was only a slight increase in traffic Sunday night and early Monday. "One serious injury was transferred to us early this morning," she said, without giving details.

Other patients were diverted to nine area hospitals, including four in the immediate vicinity: Oneida Health Center, St. Luke's Memorial, St. Elizabeth's and Faxton Hospital. Reports from those hospitals were not available at press time, spokespeople said.

(Staff Writer Teri vanHorn contributed to this report.)