Fans Set Fires, Loot, Vandalize As Woodstock '99 Ends

Bonfires rage on field as Red Hot Chili Peppers play; riot police arrive to stop vandals and looters.

ROME, N.Y. — Riotous fans set fires that raged out of control, and they tore down a speaker tower and vending tents Sunday night (July 25) as the Red Hot Chili Peppers rocked out to close Woodstock '99.

Police in riot gear were called to the scene to quell the vandalism and looting that ensued. They later cordoned off about a third of the mile-and-a-half-long field. By 2 a.m., fires were still raging and police were trying to regain control of the area.

"Holy sh--, it looks like 'Apocalypse Now' out there," Chili Peppers singer Anthony Kiedis said toward the end of the band's set, referring to Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 Vietnam War movie.

Because of the massive crowds still on the festival grounds — organizers said about 150,000 people remained as of early Sunday night — fire trucks had trouble getting to the numerous blazes burning around the massive grassy field.

Around midnight, several crews were working to control one large blaze that engulfed a series of trailers near the back of the concert grounds. Several thousand fans cheered as small explosions emerged from the tops of the trailers.

As riot police arrived, vendors protected their goods with two-by-fours and other blunt objects. One young man said he had called home for fear he might not make it back alive. Scores of concert-goers scurried from the scene.

Concert organizer John Scher addressed the crowd during the Chili Peppers' set on the three-day festival's east stage. He told fans the blazes were "not part of the show," and asked them to let fire trucks through.

His request was not heeded, and the fires continued to spread, lighting up the night sky. The Chili Peppers returned for an encore that ended with a cover of original Woodstock performer Jimi Hendrix's "Fire."

"Right now, there's lot of people panicking," Adam Stickles, an on-site fire dispatcher, said. But by midnight, he said, no injuries had been reported.

Throughout the east side of the concert grounds, festival-goers tore down tents and threw tables and metal guard rails into at least eight bonfires burning in the dark summer night. They swung from a rope attached to a metal tower that fans had toppled.

One group of fans attempted to uproot the poles supporting a vending tent while about 100 people formed a circle around the toppled tower, banging on trash barrels and yelling.

Some walked away from the rioting with merchandise they apparently had looted from the wreckage.

Near the front of the grounds, a white car lay flipped over and burned.

"I'm in total disbelief," Scott Krolak, 28, said as he stood at the foot of the car. "I'm bothered in a way. Things really got overblown. There's a mob mentality that comes over people."

Smoke from the fires could be seen throughout this normally quiet city in upstate New York, according to Randy Baran, manager of a Denny's restaurant a mile from the scene.

"It's smoke. All smoke. Smoke as far as you can see," Baran said.

The Denny's was closed as hysterical fans stood outside trying to come to grips with the situation, Baran said, adding it was the first time the 24-hour restaurant has had to shut its doors.

In the midst of the mob at Woodstock stood Fred Jasons, 20, of Boston. He held a rolled-up concert poster and T-shirt in his hands. After several minutes, he dropped them.

"At first, I was like, 'Cool, free sh--,' " Jasons said. "Now, I'm like, some people are crazy."

Jasons said he attended Limp Bizkit's Saturday-night set, which was marred by injuries after fans tore plywood planks off a lighting tower and crowd-surfed on them. Hundreds of fans were reportedly injured in the crowd beneath.

Two 18-year-old friends from Preston, Conn., Elizabeth Pruitt and Katie Malinick, said they helped set one of the fires by throwing paper and wood into what started as a small bonfire.

"This is really crazy," Malinick said. "It's just a fun way to end the concert."

The first fire began as the Chili Peppers played their song "Under the Bridge" (RealAudio excerpt), according to Jimmy Buff, program director for online radio station, who was backstage at the time. Fans held lighters and candles during the song, and a bonfire appeared soon afterward.

Minutes later, Scher appeared onstage to warn the crowd to steer clear of the flames.

"Calm down; we don't want anybody to get hurt," Scher said. "[Something] is on fire, as you can see. It's not part of the show. It really is a problem, so the fire department's gonna have to come in with a fire truck to put the fire out. Everyone needs to cooperate."

By 12:30 a.m., a line of police began moving people off the field. Sgt. Ron Townsend of the Rome Fire Department said 25 firefighters were dispatched to the grounds with five fire trucks.

Before they arrived, fans seemed excited and ecstatic as they added to the fires. One man yelled, "Hey, have some kindling," as he tossed a box into one fire. Another shouted, "Burn, motherf---er, burn" as he dragged a metal guard rail into the same blaze.

Buff said he believes the Woodstock name is now permanently marred. "I would be amazed if it's not," he said. "I think this tarnishes concerts of this size everywhere."

(Senior Writer Gil Kaufman and Staff Writers Brian Hiatt, Teri vanHorn and Chris Nelson contributed to this report.)