Monday 27 March 2017

Five revellers dead after storm rips through festival

A teenager places
flowers near the entrance
A teenager places flowers near the entrance
campers leave the muddy grounds

Mark Carlson in Hasselt

Skunk Anansie had the crowd hopping when a sudden, fierce storm began pelting the main stage -- and the thousands watching -- with rain and hail.

The storm shredded the annual Pukkelpop outdoor rock festival on Thursday evening, blowing down huge canvas tents, uprooting trees and flinging multi-storey metal scaffolding towers and racks of concert lights across the grounds.

Organisers said five people were killed and 140 injured, 10 of them seriously.

Skin, the band's lead singer, described the chaos on the band's Facebook page, saying "a burning hot sunny day turned into a mini-hurricane".

She wrote: "(A) tower fell on to our truck, we had to run for our lives mid-set as hail hit the stage and the wind began to tear it to pieces.

"This was the scariest moment I have ever seen or felt in my 20 years of being an artist."

Toon van Wemmel (26), a graphic designer from nearby Leuven, said "the hailstones came down so hard they caused bruises".

He and his partner ran away from the main stage, turned around and saw trees crashing down where they had stood less than a minute earlier.

Officials said the dead were all Belgians, ranging in age from 15 to 59. They were not immediately identified.

Cancelled

Officials cancelled the last two days of the three-day Pukkelpop festival yesterday and blamed unprecedented weather conditions in the town 80km east of Brussels.

Hilde Claes, the mayor of Hasselt, spoke of a "nightmare" and said the town had never seen a storm like the one on Thursday.

"I have seen many tropical storms, but this was unprecedented," said Chokri Mahassine, organiser of the annual festival that began in 1985.

The storm lasted barely five minutes. As the sky darkened, some of the 60,000-strong festival crowd ran for shelter from the rain and hail into the tents of caterers and festival sponsors.

But Mr Claes said three huge tents buckled under the force of the wind and the weight of the hail, sending hundreds back outdoors. As tent poles buckled, canvas roofs shredded, flapping in tatters in the wind.

Videos showed panicked concert-goers crawling out from under the downed tents and running through fields of mud to safety.

"We were dancing away and it (the shelter) caved in in the middle and people were screaming and running away," one sodden young woman said.

Dr Pascal Vranckx, of Jessa Hospital in Hasselt, said many of the injured were hit on the head by flying or falling debris.

The seriously wounded were taken to hospitals, while others were treated at a local sports centre.

"There are still three patients in critical condition, fighting for their lives," Mr Vranckx told reporters.

The storm sent thousands of mud-splattered youngsters, many shoeless, looking for train and bus transport home. Others stayed on the campground overnight, hoping the festival would resume yesterday.

Organisers deployed extra trains and buses to ferry the concertgoers home.

Ms Claes and Mr Mahassine said they received no advance warning of the storm that struck about 6pm -- a claim disputed by the Belgian weather office and VRT, the country's Dutch-language public broadcaster.

VRT weather woman Sabine Hagedoren said alerts were issued for "intense rain and storm showers with a chance of hail and fierce windgusts".

She added: "Unfortunately we cannot predict in which region -- let alone in which town or city -- the most serious thunderstorms will occur.

"But, definitely, an alert was issued for severe thunderstorms."

Belgian weather records show similarly powerful storms have struck eastern Belgium every year since 2008.

Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme offered condolences to the families of the victims and said authorities would continue to help the injured.

The festival featured internationally known acts, including Foo Fighters and Eminem.

"Our hearts go out to everyone affected by the tragic events at Pukkelpop," tweeted the Foo Fighters, whose Thursday night show was cancelled after the storm hit.

"This is not how it should be. Oof," tweeted the Fleet Foxes, who had also been scheduled to play Thursday night.

The band also used Twitter to assure family and fans that they were safe.

Damien Poinen, an 18-year old Belgian, was one of the many who camped overnight.

"On the one hand (cancelling the festival) was the right thing to do. On the other hand, some still wanted to party," he said.

Irish Independent

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