Hours before a security guard was trampled by an out-of-control crowd trying to get in without tickets into the Ultra Music Festival, police had warned the event’s organizers that the chain-link fencing at that spot was vulnerable and should be beefed up, Miami Police Chief Manuel Orosa said Monday.
On Friday, police and paramedics responded to that same location, near Southeast First Street and Biscayne Boulevard, after Erica Mack, a 28-year old security guard working the festival, was trampled by a mob. The concert crashers jumped the fence and forced their way through, leaving Mack on the floor with blood spilling from her ears. She suffered a broken leg and a fracture to her skull.
Mack remains in serious condition at Jackson Memorial Hospital.
During a walk-through before the festival opened to the public, Orosa said, police told an engineer working for Ultra that the chain-link fence at that spot needed to be reinforced. Orosa said officers did not specifically instruct Ultra representatives to install the stronger black fencing known as “G8 fencing,” the type used at G8 economic summits that often draw protesters.
“We told them to fix it,” Orosa said. “Their response was, ‘We’re going to fix it.’ ” Instead of the sturdier fencing, which requires forklifts to install, Ultra engineers put up a double chain-link fence. Orosa said neither police nor city inspectors went back to make certain the festival’s organizers complied with their recommendation.
“We took it for granted that they were going to make it better and stronger,” Orosa said.
The violent episode has led to Miami’s mayor and at least one commissioner to call for an end to the massive electronic dance music party. Though the festival is estimated to bring millions of dollars to the area, it also draws complaints from some downtown business owners and residents about noise and young people acting out.
Miami Commissioner Marc Sarnoff, whose district includes downtown Miami, said he and Mayor Tomás Regalado will ask the city commission at its April 10 meeting to put an end to Ultra at Bayfront Park.
“I think it’s our responsibility to watch out for the health and safety for Miami residents and the only way to do that is to cancel Ultra,” Sarnoff said.
Sarnoff said his objections stem from years of constituents complaining they have to barricade themselves in their homes during the extravaganza. Building owners in the neighborhood hire extra security during the three-day weekend to keep young people believed to be on drugs, particularly the one known as Molly, from having sex in the shadows of parked cars, Sarnoff said.
On Saturday, a 21-year-old man was found dead in a car near the festival. Police are investigating his death.
This past weekend, Sarnoff said, was his breaking point: “No other city is asinine enough to do this in an urban core.”
Ultra representatives did not respond Monday to a request for comment.
Festival supporters say a few negative incidents should not take away from an otherwise well-organized and enjoyable concert.
“If this were to happen at a sports game, would you shut down the stadium? Would you throw away the city’s team? Of course not,” said Lainie Copicotto, former head of public relations for Ultra and president of marketing firm Aurelia Group. “Ultra has always been about celebrating. Why doesn’t everyone come together and deal with it together?”
At his press conference Monday, Orosa placed the blame for the weekend security breach on Ultra organizers. Orosa said the weekend mob would not have been able to push their way through the fence had Ultra followed the plan it submitted to the city that called for an eight-foot tall topple-proof fence, similar to what the organizers used near the entrance to the festival, at that spot.
The security hole has spurred conversations about Ultra’s future in Miami. Supporters say the concert must go on despite the weekend’s tragedy.
“Ultra is responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars in Miami and Miami Beach,” said Copicotto, the former head of public relations for Ultra. “Ultra is a global brand. Ultras happen all over the world and Miami is a part of that tradition.”
A 2012 study commissioned by Ultra says concert goers spend $40 million directly into Miami-Dade’s economy. With other indirect spending included, that number totals $79 million, according to the report from the Washington Economics Group, which also said the three-day event supports 915 jobs.
One group that will feel a direct hit if Ultra is not allowed to return is the Bayfront Park Management Trust, which manages the festival site, Bayfront Park.
Tim Schmand, who runs the trust, said Ultra is the park’s largest single concert. Last year, the trust collected $1.2 million over two weekends. This year, the party was held over one weekend and is expected to bring in $600,000.
By comparison, the park’s second largest concert, Best of the Best, a single-day event featuring reggae artists, generated about $15,000 last year.
“It will be a great challenge if Ultra is gone,” said Schmand, who added he was unaware police had flagged a possible security problem until he saw it in media reports.
“Everyone was pretty confident that a secure plan was in place,” he said.
Miami Commissioner Frank Carollo is board chairman of the Bayfront Park Trust. He said before the city does away with the festival altogether, it needs to consider all the facts and the outcome of such a decision.
“At no point do I feel that someone’s safety has to come second to the economic impact,” he said. “I do believe that safety is of the utmost importance. At the same time, we have a whole year to decide what’s best for Miami moving forward.”
Miami police officers would also be affected financially should commissioners choose to do away with Ultra. Fraternal Order of Police local union President Javier Ortiz said Monday that officers who work the Ultra weekend can add about $2,000 to their pay, a welcome boost at a time when benefits have been cut by the city.
“As police officers we are not against the event. We just believe there needs to be more officers than civilian security guards that do not have the training, experience or authority to handle this type of environment,” he said.
Ortiz said officers are paid a premium to work the special-assignment by the Bayfront trust.
“I think the crowd is a bunch of kids trying to have fun,” Schmand said. “The future of Ultra? I’ll have to wait to see what they do.”