Evacuation ends dance festival

Christchurch Press - 4 January 2000

NELSON - An emergency evacuation of more than 300 muddy people suffering from exposure has ended the rain-soaked The Gathering dance festival on Takaka Hill. [see note 1]

Ambulance area manager Danny Fowler said yesterday it was his decision to order the evacuation, and contingency plans were put in place at 3pm on Sunday. Mr Fowler arranged with site security personnel that no vehicle was to leave with an empty seat, so that people without transport could get out.

The most serious case was a man suffering from burns who was taken to Nelson Hospital. Mr Fowler said the man, in his 30s, had moderate to severe facial burns after his clothes and hair caught alight in an outside fire lit to keep warm.

An emergency centre was set up at the Salvation Army hall in Motueka on Sunday afternoon to provide an oasis of warmth, dry clothes, and medical treatment. St John ambulance paramedic Ruth Pegg said people arrived smothererd in mud, and wet and cold.

One of them, Brendan McKinnon, 17, from Wellington, wrapped in a hypothermic blanket, said it was "pretty freakish". He had got very cold and wet, he said. He and his friends had packed up their tent at 10am but did not get out until 7pm. [see note 2]

His friend, Michael Baker, 16, said it had rained since Friday morning and became very cold. By Sunday morning there was a river of water running past their tent. Some tents in dips were submerged, he said.

Michael Johnson, of Wellington, said it had taken eight hours. He was lucky to get a lift in a housetruck, he said. Problems were caused by extra people at the site because of the sale of fraudulent tickets, he said. "There were only supposed to be 8000 people but there were 12,000 and that put pressure on everything," he said.

Salvation Army officer Bruce Edney said he had taken four boxes of warm clothing to The Gathering on Saturday when the site was wet and muddy and they had been well received. The Salvation Army also provided 10 to 12 boxes of winter clothing from its thrift shop for the wet and cold people who arrived at its hall on Sunnday night. It gave them soup and had a gas heater to warm them and to dry clothing and sleeping bags.

Mr Edney said The Gathering organisers needed to plan for such emergencies and learn from their mistakes. There had been transport and communication problems with cellphone coverage reportedly not working for part of Sunday, he said. [see note 3]

One woman broke a leg after slipping in the mud on New Year's Eve and was taken to Nelson Hospital, and there were a lot of sprains. Two doctors treated people who had taken LSD and dance drugs such as Ecstasy but they did not need to go to hospital, he said. There were no alcohol-related problems.

Organisers considered closing the four-day dance party on Saturday, a day early, but decided against it fearing problems with a mass exodus, said spokeswoman Alison Green. "We considered that very seriously," she said. "We didn't want a mass exodus of 9,000 people off the site."

Ms Green said organisers would hold a debriefing, and whether they would hold another event would depend on whether the crew wanted to.

Nelson has been drenched with nearly half its January average rainfall in the first two days of the month. Over the 48 hours to 9am yesterday, 34.6mm of rain fell, said MetService meteorologist Glenn Ross. The average rainfall for January is 71mm.

NZPA, Christchurch Press, 4 January 2000

WebEd's corrections

note 1

This is inaccurate reporting. 300 people left The Gathering site on January 2 on buses, as they had always planned to do. We provide a bus service between both Nelson & Motueka and The Gathering site for people who do not have their own vehicles. This year, 300 people chose to use that service. They were not evacuated and the situation was never an emergency, they were simply leaving.

Danny did not order any evacuation, as this was never remotely necessary. We took 40 Gatherers suffering from mild hypothermia to Motueka Salvation Army hall where they were checked out by St John Ambulance staff, and given food and warm clothes before being taken to Nelson College for the night. We took these Gatherers off the hill BEFORE their situation became serious.

note 2

These boys left the site at around 4pm, not 7pm. I know, I was in the bus that took them to Motueka. A small point, but we do like things to be accurately reported.

note 3

The cellphone coverage was offline for a short while due to a problem at Vodafone, which was beyond our control. They fixed the problem and communication was resumed. While cellphone coverage was off, we communicated with the "outside world" via radio telephone to the main gate at the top of Takaka Hill, with messages then being relayed by cellphone. This RT channel is monitored at all times by Motueka police.

Page last updated: