SPOKANE — Despite the death of a young man during a music festival from a likely drug overdose, no major changes are planned for security at the popular Gorge Amphitheater.
Kyle Foreman, spokesman for the Grant County Sheriff’s Office, said a certain amount of drug and alcohol abuse is to be expected at the venue. The Gorge for more than two decades has been luring major performers and big crowds to sparsely populated Grant County, which is about 120 miles east of Seattle. During some shows, the Gorge surpasses Moses Lake to become the largest community in Grant County.
Because of the remoteness of the location, many patrons camp at the site, often for several days. The big campground is known for raucous partying.
Foreman said deputies and private security officers patrol the campground, but there are still reports of drug and alcohol abuse, fights and sexual assaults.
“Every weekend, at most concerts, we expect arrests for drugs and assault,” Foreman said. “It’s common at all concerts.”
The Paradiso Festival drew more than 25,000 people June 28-29, and more than 70 ended up going to area hospitals, many because of apparent drug overdoses.
But Foreman noted that is still a relatively tiny percentage of the total attendees at the festival, which featured dozens of electronic music performances.
“We have a lot of concertgoers who come to concerts who do not partake of alcohol and drugs,” Foreman said. “The majority of people who attend don’t cause problems.”
“We plan to conduct our business as best we can,” he added.
The concert promoter contracts with the sheriff’s office to provide security, and supplements that with private security guards.
In an emailed statement, festival co-producers Live Nation and USC Events said they were “committed to bringing people together to experience music in a safe environment.”
More than a dozen events remain on the Gorge schedule for the rest of the summer.
The sheriff’s office handled 62 calls for service at the Paradiso Festival and arrested 23 people for various charges, which appears to be about average for a concert weekend.
The four-day Sasquatch Music Festival at the Gorge over Memorial Day saw 27 arrests, Foreman said.
Numerous people attending the Paradiso Festival told medical workers they had consumed a drug known as Molly, said Undersheriff Dave Ponozzo. The drug can cause brain damage or heart failure.
Patrick D. Witkowski, 21, of Des Moines, died June 30 at Central Washington Hospital in Wenatchee of an apparent drug overdose. Chelan County Coroner Wayne Harris said an autopsy found no physical injuries or pre-existing medical conditions that would have caused the death.
Toxicology tests of blood and urine, with results expected in about eight weeks, should pinpoint a cause of death, he said.
Witkowski was one of seven people from the music festival who became sick and were taken to the larger hospital in Wenatchee, some 30 miles away.
Quincy Valley Medical Center, the closest hospital to the amphitheater, treated about 70 other concertgoers in its emergency room from Thursday through Sunday, spokeswoman Michele Wurl said, with at least 40 of the cases related to drugs and alcohol.
“We’re seeing a lot of severe drug abuse cases in general,” Wurl said. “The numbers coming through the door are not increasing, but the severity of the drug problem is up. We don’t know why.”
Many times, patients are not even sure what drugs they have consumed, which makes their care more difficult, Wurl said. Some people just pull a variety of pills out of a bag and consume them, she said.
The small hospital, which typically has just one doctor on duty in its emergency room most nights, basically sets up in disaster mode on concert weekends, Wurl said. Much more staff is on duty, and regular hospital rooms are converted into temporary emergency rooms to handle the load, she said.
“We are here to serve whoever walks through the door,” she said.