A violent storm Thursday night forced attendees at the Blue Ridge Rock Festival to flee through high winds, rain and hail, and the threat of more severe weather forced the cancellation of the final two days of the four-day event at Virginia International Raceway.
In the wake of what some described as a nightmarish situation Thursday evening, droves of ticket holders took to social media to criticize everything from festival conditions to communications, even forming a Facebook page called “Screwed by Blue Ridge Rock Festival” with a membership of nearly 22,000. Member by midday Sunday.
The largest rock festival in North America was expected to bring a daily crowd of about 45,000 people — more than the total population of Halifax County — to Virginia International Raceway.
Festival organizers canceled plans for Saturday’s lineup when a line of storms from North Carolina slowly crept toward the Virginia border and into Halifax County.
The line triggered a severe thunderstorm warning at about 11:40 a.m. Saturday from the National Weather Service in Blacksburg with high winds as the main threat at that time.
“With heavy hearts, and due to continued severe weather this weekend, we must announce the cancellation of the final days of the Blue Ridge Rock Festival,” organizers wrote on Facebook. “Your safety and well-being are our top concerns.”
“I hear you’re all grappling with the weather (Thursday),” the Crown the Empire lead singer said.
Danville resident Joe Scott was at the festival Thursday night when the chaotic turn of events began.
“We were just sitting at one point up the hill about seven o’clock,” he told the Journal.
He explained that “there was no warning about the storm.” “It started raining and the wind picked up so fast that I could barely put on my coat.”
Within seconds, the blanket became “completely saturated” and strong winds blew in, pulling the vendors’ tents along the perimeter.
He explained: “They put the evacuation messages on the theater screens and we went to the gate, and by the time we got there the lightning had started, and it was very close.”
He said they were “herded” to a road to wait for buses, an ordeal that lasted for three hours while the wind, heavy rain and hail continued to blow.
“Garbage was flying everywhere in the rain,” he said, as people struggled to keep tents on the ground.
As he ran toward the gates, the storm also toppled the portable bathrooms.
“The shuttles did what they could, but when we finally got on at 10:30 a.m., the driver said she hadn’t eaten since 7 a.m. that day, and they didn’t even give her a break to eat,” Scott explained. “Note that while we were standing on this road we saw someone having an epileptic seizure and we had no access to food, water or bathrooms.”
He said it took some people more than five hours to get to the bus and back to the parking lots.
However, some issues had arisen earlier in the afternoon that had already caused Scott concern.
“We saw several people being pulled out due to heat-related issues because water was pretty much inaccessible,” he said.
Halifax County Sheriff Fred S. Clark, who has spent most of the last few days at VIR, said several hundred people were seen by EMS due to heat exhaustion, but he did not have a count of how many people may have been taken to area hospitals.
“It was very hot the first couple of days for this time of year,” Clark told the Journal on Sunday afternoon.
Clark described it as an “unexpected storm” Thursday night.
It was estimated that between 50 and 60 thousand people attended the festival, but expectations were only about 45 thousand.
By Sunday afternoon, the majority of campers had moved out.
“We were monitoring the weather closely,” Clark said of the weekend, but stressed that law enforcement had not made the decision to close the festival.
There were arrests, mostly of people who were drunk in public, but one suspect was arrested after stealing a car.
“It wasn’t serious, but with that many people, of course we would be subject to arrests,” Clark said of the violations of the law.
Clark had about 15 to 20 officers at the festival, but other deputies were on duty answering routine county calls, so there was never a gap in available staff.
Traffic was an issue and some attendees complained of having to wait 12 hours in line and some running out of gas, Clark said.
“In the first two days, there were a lot of traffic issues,” he explained.
Regarding complaints about overflowing garbage, the sheriff said this is somewhat to be expected with a large-scale event like this.
He said: “From our point of view, things went as expected under the circumstances.”
Clark expressed deep appreciation for the assistance provided by neighboring law enforcement partners and EMS personnel.
“We couldn’t have done it without them,” he said.
Questions emailed to festival promoters about issues raised by fans had not been answered at the time of publication.
Regarding damage, he only witnessed vendors’ tents being towed, but said he saw “multiple photos” of “torn up” campsites.
Festival organizers said they were deeply saddened and disappointed by the cancellation.
“Please know that this decision was made with the utmost consideration for everyone involved and that our focus now is on supporting those of you who are still on site,” the post said Saturday afternoon.
More details about the refunds were expected earlier in the week.
For two people, Scott spent more than $600 for four-day passes. A four-day pass for the shuttle service was an additional $107.
“This was a painful turn of events on what was supposed to be a special weekend,” the post from the Blue Ridge Rock Festival read. “There will be a lot to reveal over the next few days.”
Scott realizes that Mother Nature is not a force that can be controlled, especially at this time of year, but he believes more could have been done in terms of communication.
“In general, their communication and how they dealt with the transmission of any information to the audience was very unprofessional and lacking,” he noted. “It’s very frustrating and difficult to know exactly what’s going on.”
Scott noted that “stories” were posted on the official Facebook page instead of posts. Posts remain history, unless removed by the poster, but Stories automatically disappear after a 24-hour period.
“Rest assured, we will take care of you despite these difficult circumstances,” the organizers concluded in a post on Saturday. “Thank you for everything.”
Last year, Halifax County collected about $500,000 in tax revenue from the four-day rock festival, and that amount is expected to grow to $600,000 this year.
Virginia State Police had not responded to questions from The Gazette-Virginian by press time.
Citing weather reports “indicating “continued storm activity throughout the day that will continue to bring high winds and rain,” festival organizers have moved up the check-out time for campers to 2pm on Sunday. It was originally scheduled to be extended into Monday.
“We have made these plans to ensure fans can exit the campgrounds safely,” a post on the Blue Ridge Rock Festival Facebook page said.
PHOTOS: Friday scenes from Blue Ridge Rock Festival