An early 7am departure from the city of Buenos Aires began the journey to a small rural location in the Buenos Aires province to see Argentine music legend, Indio Solari, who rose to fame with his band the Redonditos de Ricota, (a.k.a the Redondos).
If you never heard of them, you should. They are considered by many to be the greatest Argentine National Rock band of all time for their monumental shows (seeing crowds of over 100,000) and their musical legacy rife with rebellion. Breaking up in 2001, Solari – their lead singer – continued their work solo and adopted their huge fan base. A following with such level or religious admiration that many times his concerts are referred to as “going to mass.” With an announcement last year that he had Parkinson’s disease, it was uncertain whether or not this show would be Indio’s last ever performance, hence the colossal turnout in Olavarría.
Why pick this relatively small, quasi-rural town of over 100,000 people, some 350 kilometres outside of Buenos Aires for a massive show that would draw hundreds of thousands?
Basically, it was revenge.
Twenty years ago, the Redondos had been banned from playing there by the town mayor at the time, Helios Eseverri, a few days before they were scheduled to play there. Back then, Eseverri announced he thought Olavarría was too small a venue to hold such a large group of fans. This saw the band’s only ever televised press conference, in which the clearly annoyed members said they would play there once safety conditions were guaranteed. Twenty years on, permission was granted. But to fatal effect.
With an estimated six to eight-hour journey to the rural venue, the Predio Rural La Colmena was on the cards. Trying to fit 150,000 people into a small town doesn’t bode well for traffic so my friends and I, leaving in a passenger bus from Villa Crespo, were preparing mentally for what would be a harrowing experience.
It took us ten hours to get there.
Joining the huge queue of parked buses consuming the street, we finally stepped on solid ground and walked to a previa in a large field parallel to the road. It was equipped with a long queue for copious choripanes and literally a skip full of beer. One half of the field housed a small warm up act hailing Indio with a hundred or so eager spectators jumping up and down, the other half a place for eating, drinking and a makeshift play ground for children (yes, children). I saw one security guard ambling amongst the crowd, but more so were litter pickers trying to keep the growing population of bottles, beer cans and napkins under control. A wristband got us in with no tickets or bags being checked. At this stage the atmosphere seemed friendly, however if things turned sour, emergency services were nowhere to be seen. That was my first warning sign.
9:30pm. Gig time.
After a weaving walk through more passenger buses and joining the crowded procession heading towards the stage, the street was bustling with excitement. One sign directed the crowd (“gates 1-6”, if memory serves) through a field.
And suddenly, cue organizational mishap number one.
No walkway was clearly indicated or fenced off, which meant scrambling in-between trees and over torn down fences. Heading through one more field we hit the road leading to the entrance, a fairly small strip packed with people. A narrow walkway on top of a nearby hill was the other – and less packed – alternative, which along with other scramblers, we joined.
Entering the ticket gate area, a small collection of armed riot police stood outside whilst ticket staff (no more than 20 people) ripped tickets frantically as the approaching hoards of people began to clog the gates. They let us through and no searches were made, which struck me as very unusual. Having attended other concerts of similar size, there are usually fenced off walkways to organize queues accompanied by a sea of high-vis staff working in at least a two-tier system. One tier allocated to check tickets and count numbers and the other performing rigorous security checks, sometimes even with sniffer dogs present.
Not this time.
The concert area (roughly a giant 15-hectare rectangle) was supposed to house around 150,000 comfortably. But this time an estimated 300,000 were allowed in. Fifteen grey scaffolding towers rose from the crowds around the campo, each approximately 15 meters tall, housing the concert’s enormous sound-system. An announcement before the show indicated the nearby medical tents, which at least gave me some assurance that someone out there was supposed to be taking care of us.
I also noticed a few people from the organization at the bottom of our closest tower, just hanging there, but no one was standing at the top (in the “crow’s nest”) with a vantage point to observe crowd behavior and locate and aid injured spectators. Once again, unusual.
The actual performance? Relatively disappointing and broken up, with no encore.
And then, suddenly, tragedy struck.
The on-going mosh pit near the stage caused a human avalanche at the front, which resulted in the death of one person. Up until that point, Solari had issued several warnings between songs, asking people to be more careful.
Centered in the middle of the crowd, far from the stage, we initially assumed it was just problems with the sound-system or a simple set-list confusion. However, when Indio started telling people to “calm down” and at one point started saying “I’m fed up with this now,” we realized something else was going on. Although it disrupted the performance with various stoppages, the last few songs were played uninterrupted so it seemed like things had gone back to normal. Little did we know what had actually happened until later that morning on the passenger bus.
After the concert it was time to head out, or so we thought.
The voice from the speakers in the background kept reminding concertgoers that “all lost children had to go to Tower 5”.
Completely normal. And that was the last time we heard from the organization.
With no obvious exit signs posted, we headed towards the back of the field. We were amongst the first to reach a dead end with the vast crowd behind us. No guidance was given and no staff or police were to be seen, anywhere. Several people had climbed the trees and a nearby tower and confused groups were deliberating whether to head left or right.
Jammed at the end of the field, anxiousness could be felt with various hands in the air, attempting to wave people backward, and allow us some room to move. Amongst the confusion, some shouting was heard as one girl fainted and she was attended by what appeared to be off-duty doctors in the crowd who just happened to be there. Some alarm bells began to ring, especially since we were caught in a standstill.
Thankfully, a few loud voiced women on shoulders took it upon themselves to attempt to control the crowd, shouting orders which luckily people listened to. Anxiousness gradually lifted as slowly people made it towards a distant corner with a Salida (exit) sign. On the way there, more shouting could be heard as a second fainted girl was being escorted by five or so people through the crowd, a phone flashlight was used to try and part the waves. The voice in my head kept saying: “Just be patient, don’t panic.” At one point people in the crowd started that Argentine football chant tradition to try and hurry things along whilst trying to keep the situation as light hearted as possible.
At the exit corner the crowd had slightly thinned. However upon arrival it was clear that the exit was nowhere to be seen. Taking things into their own hands, exhausted and quite possibly afraid, people started to rip down the wooden fence, allowing us to clamber through scaffolding poles and out onto the road. No staff or representatives were in sight, at all. Upon clambering through the scaffolding, we were greeted by a third individual, in the worst condition yet. Four men were carrying an injured man, back into the crowd presumably to one of the medical tents indicated at the start of the concert. Seeing this limp body being carried was the most alarming sight yet. It kicked me into gear as I tried to move as quickly but calmly as possible to escape the huge multitude of people. This definitely wasn’t right.
With the road packed to the brim, people were climbing the nearby hill and my friends and I followed suit. This time people were sliding down the back of the slippery hill into a large dark field parallel to the road. We joined the troop of people stumbling through the thistle filled field. Sensing we were near the end of the road we clambered back up the hill and slid down the other side. Walking through the next field, the crowd was now thinner and it was easier to breathe.
Security presence? None.
After buying some water bottles from a street vendor, we headed back down our original route, back through the trees and bushes and over the broken fences. We joined the huge procession leaving. After a long walk back to the bus, we boarded at around 2:30am (roughly two hours after the concert finished). Falling straight to sleep, I woke up at 8am. Our bus was still in the queue to leave. Almost six hours had passed since I collapsed, exhausted, on my seat and yet our bus had not moved an inch all this time.
We ended up coming back to Buenos Aires at 4:15pm. “Mammoth journey” would be an understatement.