ROME, N.Y. — Woodstock '99 ended in a fire-fueled riot
Sunday night (July 25) that saw fans destroying and stealing property,
and police in riot gear beating concert-goers and spraying them with
pepper spray, according to eyewitnesses.
The melee, which erupted as the three-day festival drew to a dramatic
climax, lasted for several hours into the early morning as thousands
of fans rioted on the field near the east stage.
The trouble began following a closing set by funk-rockers the Red Hot
Chili Peppers as some of the nearly 200,000 fans ignited bonfires that
at points shot up more than 30 feet in the air. The festival-goers
danced around the fires and tore off pieces of wood from structures to
add fuel to the blazes.
They were asked to calm down by organizers and were urged to let fire
trucks through to put out the blazes. But within minutes, as many as
eight fires were burning around the field, filling the area with a thick
cloud of smoke. Vending booths were destroyed, merchandise was stolen,
trailers were gutted and a tower was toppled during the chaos.
Propane tanks exploded and debris was scattered around the expansive
former military airfield.
Police brought things under control about 3 a.m. Monday, but not
before the massive field, which just hours earlier had been filled
with the festival's music and celebration, was left looking like
a war zone.
"We just want these [state police] out here until [the lingering
crowds] crash out," said Lt. Robert Patnaube of the New York state
police as he stood in the middle of the field with a police blockade,
staring at a crowd of remaining concert-goers engaged in a tribal drum
Approximately 500 state troopers arrived on the scene shortly after
midnight, according to Patnaube. Though he could not offer official
numbers, he said several concert-goers were arrested on
disorderly conduct charges. There was one arson arrest.
Patnaube added that there were injuries as well, but he said he was
unaware of any deaths. A press conference was scheduled for Monday at
10 a.m. in the media compound at Woodstock '99.
For most of the night and early morning, smoke covered the entire
mile-and-a-half field that stretched from Woodstock's east stage to
its west stage.
Bonfires — some fueled by broken chunks of a "peace wall" created
to commemorate the original music and art festival held in Bethel,
N.Y., in 1969 — burned out of control near the east stage.
Police, who arrived on the scene well after the concert had ended with
a tribute to late guitar-legend Jimi Hendrix, used pepper spray to
control festival-goers. The smell of the chemical irritant hung in the
air around the east stage.
Troopers wearing face masks and carrying billy clubs attacked fans
seemingly without provocation, according to festival-goers, Woodstock
employees and other eyewitnesses at the scene.
"I was scared sh--less," said Andrew Kimbler, 19, a Woodstock security
guard, who witnessed the chaos. "The cops were beating the f--- out of
everybody. I saw cops running from the security gate f---ing hitting
on everybody. They're not listening to anybody, they're just hitting
Some rioting concert-goers near the west stage tried to break into a
bank of ATM machines, in some cases attacking cameramen and journalists
who approached them. Nearby, a large group of screaming concert-goers
smashed the windows of a house trailer before flipping it on its side.
Emergency personnel received reports that two or more people may have
been crushed or trapped under the trailer. That could not be confirmed
at press time.
A large tower near the east stage was pushed over. A white car was
turned upside down and set ablaze.
Near the east stage, state police, with their face shields down and
truncheons at the ready, marched in military formation through the
litter-strewn concert grounds. They forced fans to move westward.
Individual troopers sped across the grounds. At various points,
dozens of police could be seen chasing concert-goers around the field.
Woodstock '99 co-promoter John Scher took partial responsibility for
the riot in a press conference that began in the media-compound tent
around 4 a.m. "Of course we blame ourselves to a degree," he said. "It's
But he also blamed "bad kids."
"We all have to sort of re-evaluate some of these kids and some of their
actions," he said (RealAudio
excerpt of interview). Scher was questioned about reports of
decreased security despite problems during Saturday night's Limp Bizkit,
Rage Against the Machine and Metallica shows, which resulted in hundreds
of injuries from crowd surfing and moshing.
He said organizers took the proper precautions and that the riot could
not have been anticipated. He acknowledged, however, that it was a bad
idea to distribute candles to fans during the final show, considering
the litter on the grounds and the lack of rain in recent weeks.
Thousands of candles were handed out for the Chili Peppers show to help
celebrate the final performance.
Some fans expressed anger at festival-goers who went wild. "They gave us
everything we could ever have asked for [during the festival], and it wasn't
enough. Kids are spoiled rotten. ... Woodstock stands for peace and love,
and this was a f---ing riot," said Tom Harris, 23, of Las Vegas.
The field, which for the most part during the weekend festival had a
cheerful, carnival-like atmosphere, took on an ominous air in the early
Fans beat tribal rhythms on garbage cans. The sound filled the air as
young people danced in circles, sometimes just a few feet from police.
The air smelled of burning garbage, as well as urine and feces. Many
attendees throughout the festival weekend had relieved themselves on the
field, rather than in the portable restrooms.
At one point, angry music fans directly confronted police, chanting
"bullsh--, bullsh--." "Do you smoke dope?" shouted one kid at the police.
"Do you like to suck c--k?" called out another.
"All they have to do is get one cop to take a hit of a bong and this
will all cool out," said a teenage boy, who did not give his name. "That's
all it would take."
Employees stood inside one bank of vendor tents near the west stage,
holding wooden sticks, apparently for self-defense.
Small groups of concert-goers carried piles of T-shirts and other items
they had stolen from vendors.
At times police used force to get festival-goers to move off the field,
according to eyewitnesses. "I saw them spraying people in the face with
pepper spray," Rome native Kyle Strait, 18, said.
Some in the crowd feared for their lives. Kimbler called his family from
a pay phone, explaining that he wanted them to know what had happened "in
case I don't make it out."
(Editorial Director Michael Goldberg, Senior Editor Matt Melucci,
Senior Writer Gil Kaufman, Staff Writer Chris O'Connor and Contributing
Editor Frank Tortorici contributed to this report.)