Pukkelpop 2011

Another update was scheduled for today, but I’ve postponed that review to 25 August. It felt inappropriate not to dedicate a few words to the disaster that struck the Pukkelpop festival on Thursday. Regular readers may remember I’ve written several festival reviews of this particular festival. Thirteen years I’ve been to Pukkelpop, only 25 km away from the village I grew up in. At the time of the disaster I was still in Germany and noticed how Cologne was swallowed by dark clouds. I was The grounds after the stormunaware the storm had chosen of all places a music festival to let loose its worse demons. It lasted no longer than 15 minutes, but the magnitude was beyond description. Hail, the size of bullets, fell down on the crowds and chased Skunk Anansie away in the midst of their concert. Thousands of people looked desperately for shelter as the winds played with anything that wasn’t cemented in the ground. The DJ at the dance hall was told to get everyone out of the place, something not everyone seemed willing to do. Meanwhile, some festivalgoers managed to get backstage – probably because some fences had been knocked down – and hid in the back of a truck. Some seeked shelter in the backstage area of the dance hall and yelled like cowboys who’d just caught a wild bull because they’d arrived in a dry shelter and because the heavy rain had felt like a cooling shower after a scorchingly hot afternoon. At that point, people didn’t realize what was happening elsewhere.

At the Chateau, the tent where I’m usually found, another concert was suddenly cancelled and people from outside ran inside to get away from the heavy rain. That’s when the tent couldn’t handle the winds and collapsed. You couldn’t blame the tent: elsewhere on the grounds even trees couldn’t handle such severe after the stormstorms. Several trees fell on stands and elsewhere a loose branch tore down the roof of a tent. At the camping site, people cheered every time another tent flew by, but the cheering quickly silenced as the magnitude of the disaster started to dawn. The metal railings that lit up the lavatory area couldn’t handle the bashing any longer and fell down on a tent, thereby killing a young woman.

She was not the only victim. The other four three casualties were reported on the festival grounds. Luckily, the medics were nearby and the hospitals near the festival rushed their ambulances to the scene, something that might have prevented more deaths. At the time of writing, there are still three people fighting for their lives (which luckily also means 8 people have pulled through). Another 140 people were taken to hospital to treat their wounds.

All this makes you quiet, even if you weren’t present. What should have been a musical fest became a nightmare. Extra news bulletins invited psychologists to inform parents how to deal with their children, what was left of the groundsonce they’d returned home. Twitter and Facebook served their purposes when the mobile operators were unable to deal with these many calls and everyone tried to see if their loved ones and friends were alright: lists appeared with the names of people who had been reached and were safe. For miles around the festival people were stuck in traffic jams, unable to get near the grounds and get hold of their children.

Artists also rushed to Twitter and Facebook to sympathize. Well, most… Cullen Amori of Smith Westerns immediately twittered that the festival better be insured as the tent collapsed while their “shit” was there. He deleted the tweet a couple of hours later and replaced it by another statement. This mentioned that he’d twittered right after the accident and apologized to everyone who – and I quote – “mistook” his original tweet. Oh, so now it’s our fault we think of the people inside when a tent collapses and not of the instruments that are inside? Our mistake then. Anyway, if you think it can’t get worse, Cullen also tweeted “were okay”, adding the # “giveituptothebigguy”. So apparently God loves the members of the band, but not their instruments or mere mortals like festivalgoers. What a guy!

At the other end of the spectrum, Foo Fighters sent a message of sympathy and also informed everyone that even though they’d been offered a chance to still play they wouldn’t. After all, this was still a festival and the only appropriate word to the devastation afterwardsdescribe the situation was utter “chaos”. Not only was there a question of who was safe, but it was also unclear as what would happen next. The electronic boards informed everyone the festival was “on a short break”. Two hours later, the mayor and crew decided to play some music to calm down people’s nerves. The crew rushed to the several festival areas – Pukkelpop has eight stages if you didn’t know – to see if there was still a chance to have some acts continue. None of the artists seemed willing to put on a show and the stages didn’t look too promising either. A statement was issued that Pukkelpop couldn’t continue that evening, but that the festival would return in a condensed form the very next day.

This caused a lot of anger to some people who weren’t present. Among the most ardent naysayers on Twitter, some of those were members of the nationalist party. The festival is organized by a member of the socialist party. And what better time to vent your anger on someone of another party when he has to deal with casualties, wounded people, 60000 festivalgoers who are wondering what will happen next and even millions of people who want to know what’s happened and if their friends and family members are okay.
Some people are so disgusting we shouldn’t even bother to find a fitting description for them.

Psychologically, it might not have been a bad idea to continue with a condensed festival. This would have allowed the people in shock to spend some time together and get a grip of themselves. However, the infrastructure was devastated beyond repair and the festival crew were only continuing their work because they’d switched themselves to automatic modus.
So at five in the morning, the man behind the festival announced that the festival was over. The camping site would remain open for another day to let everyone go home when they wanted to, so that there wouldn’t be an exodus of 60000 people at the same time.

The Dutch festival Lowlands, which is held at the same weekend and boasts a similar line-up, was quick to show its sympathy with the Belgian festival, but their statements were cut by the Dutch news because they only wanted to hear how the Dutch tents were very secure (“resistant up to 12 Beaufort”). That Pukkelpop’s casualties were because of the trees and railings was mentioned by the festival’s organisor but didn’t seem to fit in the Dutch narrative of “this would never happen here”.

The truth is: it could have happened anywhere. There might have been a storm warning, but noone could predict that the storm would be so ferocious right on the festival’s grounds. Is there really a need to look for a culprit? Especially since the festival crew did their utmost best to overcome the chaos, is it fair to inflict them with the question if this disaster couldn’t be prevented? Or indeed ask them if the festival will return next year? The man behind the festival said it was too soon to answer. The town’s mayor said she hoped the festival would continue but that it would never be the same again. Let’s all agree with her.

(images by Belga, compilation video by Canvas)

(P.S. The number of casualties has been changed to four: one of the heavily wounded victims was originally counted as a casualty, but after investigations this proved to be incorrect. Sadly, the number of wounded people was higher because some victims didn’t get themselves treated at the hospitals, but went straight home to be taken care of over there.)

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