Miami-Dade County

On eve of return, Ultra tries to put tumultuous 2014 behind

Erica Mack, the security guard who was trampled last year at Ultra Music Festival, chats about the incident at the Brickell office of her attorney, Eric Isicoff.
Erica Mack, the security guard who was trampled last year at Ultra Music Festival, chats about the incident at the Brickell office of her attorney, Eric Isicoff. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Erica Mack barely remembers anything about the opening night of Ultra Music Festival last year, when a chain-link fence buckled under the weight of gate-crashers and came down on top of her.

She has no memory of the dance-music fans who trampled over her pinned body on their way into Bayfront Park. And she remembers nothing of the 11-day hospital stay, during which she was placed in an induced coma to help reduce brain swelling and underwent surgery to repair an ankle broken in several places.

“All I remember is waking up in apparently the ICU in the hospital and not knowing what happened, or why I was there,” said Mack, 29, last week.

The opening-night trampling of the security guard was a low point for Ultra, which began in 1999 as a renegade Winter Music Conference party and evolved into one of the premium brands of the multi-billion-dollar electronic dance music scene. And like Mack, Ultra’s owners and promoters would like to wipe last year’s opening night debacle from memory and move forward.

So with the 17th edition of Ultra Music Festival in Miami beginning Friday afternoon, festival representatives and an army of public relations gurus have been stressing new measures intended to make the event safer. Their aim is to get through an incident-free weekend, and allow the sound of top-tier DJs and performers to once again resonate above the din of ambulance sirens and anti-Ultra drumbeats.

“That would certainly be a goal, to be able to have the event and not have any type of issue to where the questions [of safety] are even asked,” said former Miami Beach police chief Ray Martinez, Ultra’s newly minted head of security. “That’s what we’re shooting for.”

This year, there are some notable changes at the three-day, 165,000 ticket festival. Among them:

▪ Greater numbers of police — approximately 330, including undercover officers — will roam the fair grounds. Another 60 firefighter/paramedics will be on hand.

▪ Fencing around the festival will be strong enough to literally stop a speeding race car. (Ultra is using the 6-ton, 12-foot fencing barriers placed around downtown during the city’s Formula-e racing event earlier this month to line the perimeter of Bayfront Park.)

▪ Baptist Health professionals will be on site to educate attendees about the use of illicit drugs.

▪ For the first time, the festival is adults-only. Ticket holders must be at least 18, and will need a valid U.S.-issued ID or a passport to enter.

With those steps, Ultra hopes to avoid last year’s problems, which included the fatal overdose of an attendee, found unresponsive by friends who left him in a car outside the festival. Ultra has also dealt recently with renewed questions about drug use at the festival, the death of ousted co-founder Alex Omes and a multi-million-dollar lawsuit filed by Mack.

So restoring tranquility is key for a production that grossed $18.5 million in ticket sales alone last year, and this year will erect seven stages hosting dozens of DJs and live acts. The Miami event has become the flagship festival in a production that now touches five continents and 10 countries, even if the last two mayors of the city have tried to boot the festival out.

“We want to provide for as safe an event as we can,” said Martinez, who was brought on after last year’s festival.

But restoring positive vibes will be an uphill climb in Miami, where there have been enough incidents at the festival to prompt political backlash.

In 2013, for example, a large LED panel fell during the erection of the festival’s spectacular main stage and critically injured two workers on the eve of the event. Last year, Miami police said they warned Ultra that the section of fencing that ultimately crumpled onto Mack was weaker than what they’d promised to set up, but festival producers did nothing to shore up the barrier.

A police log of emergency calls last year shows that the 8 p.m. rush that trampled Mack near First Avenue wasn’t isolated. The following night, police said a “large crowd rushed the gate at the South Service Road but were unable to gain entry.” Five minutes later the fence at Biscayne Boulevard and Fourth Street was knocked down. And then, at 8:42 p.m. Saturday, “mobs of over 200 juveniles [were] running from entrance to entrance attempting to gain entry.”

Most of the rest of the police log details emergency calls for people jumping fences, or patrons who’d passed out in various places.

Mack’s attorney, Eric Isicoff, says Ultra has a history of safety lapses and negligence, although Ultra representatives have disputed similar stances. Mayor Tomás Regalado also continues to call for an end to the festival.

“Everyone, including myself, is suspicious that Ultra is going to be a problem,” Regalado said. “Even with all these new measures they’ve taken, I still say that Ultra doesn’t belong in downtown Miami.”

Martinez, who said he couldn’t speak to last year’s festival because he wasn’t involved, says festivals can work in downtown settings. After he was hired, Martinez visited rival festivals, including Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas and Lollapalooza in Chicago, which hosts the event at Grant Park, downtown on the water. Martinez said Ultra is copying some of the practices he saw, including the deployment of 25 teams of “ambassadors” who will comb through the festival crowds to find and help attendees in need.

He said most festivals had the same issues, including gate-crashing, when fans without tickets overload a fence to crash it down and get inside. This year, thanks to the coincidental timing of a recent electric-car race downtown, Ultra is using 12-foot racing barriers to keep people out of Bayfront Park, and even lining the fencing with plywood to prevent climbing.

Along with the hiring of Martinez, making the event adults-only could be a major step in restoring relations with Miami’s officials, even though Ultra organizers say only 5 percent of attendees last year were under 18.

“We all felt collectively that it was the right thing to do,” Martinez said. “It’s really an adult event and we wanted to move toward that.”

While Ultra is trying to move on, so too is Mack. She says she’s picked up a part-time job as a customer service representative, but can only work for short stretches because of anxiety as a result of her head injury. She said she’s staved off previous plans of becoming a teacher, and can’t jog or ride bikes like she used to.

But Mack said maybe there’s a silver lining, if Ultra is finally taking the appropriate steps to host a safer event.

“It is a very serious, dangerous event,” she said. “I did hear there are things they’re looking to do to have the proper fencing, beef up security and make sure there are things in place now in light of what happened to me. … And the only good might be that because of [what happened to] me, people who attend that event will be more safe.”

Isicoff, her attorney, says the changes “are welcome.”

“But they’re too late.”

Ultra tight

Ultra Music Festival has released a list of what attendees can bring to Bayfront Park. Here’s a sample of what’s allowed and what’s not:

▪ Only clutch purses, fanny packs, empty hydration packs and clear bags no larger than 13 inches by 17 inches will be allowed in.

▪ Glowing jewelry, flags and banners are allowed.

▪ Backpacks and purses are prohibited.

▪ Ultra has a “zero tolerance” policy toward illegal drugs.

▪ No stuffed animals, facial masks, glow sticks, inflatable balls or whistles.

▪ No tree climbing.

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