Chicago band on stage during deadly storm

August 19, 2011 9:24:54 AM PDT
Five people are dead after a fierce thunderstorm at a music festival in Belgium as the Chicago band Smith Westerns was performing.

Belgian officials announced that two people died overnight, bringing the death toll to five. More than 100 people were injured as well and continue to recover. Concert organizers say what happened was exceptional and couldn't have been predicted.

A storm was passing through the music festival in Belgium when the stage began to sway and then suddenly collapse.

"It caved in at the middle, and people screamed and ran and everyone was just running away," said Brinnie Gardner, witness.

Smith Westerns was on stage. Lead singer Colin Omori, his brother Cameron and the guitarist, Max Kakacek, barely escaped injury. The band played at Lollapalooza a couple weeks ago. In a statement, Colin Omori said, "We had just finished the first song and were about to play the next one when our tour manager yelled at me to run off the stage. Right then, the truss collapsed one foot in front of Max."

On Thursday night, the band Sugarland performed for the first time since their stage collapsed in front of them at the Indiana State Fair last weekend. At their concert in New Mexico, the band remembered the five people killed and dozens hurt.

"In honor of those people who were wounded in and those beautiful lives that were lost, we ask you to stand and join us in a moment of silence," said Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles.

A funeral was held Thursday for one of the five victims in the Indiana collapse. Christina Santiago, 29, was a North Side community activist. She grew up in New York City, where the service was held. Her partner, Alicia Brennan, was injured in the collapse and remains hospitalized. The investigation into the Indiana stage collapse continues.

Belgian concert organizers canceled their three-day event. The festival was sold out. Rapper Eminem and bands like The Foo Fighters were also expected to perform.

All the dead were Belgians, Hasselt, Belgium, Mayor Hilde Claes.

Thousands of mud-splattered young people, many of them shoeless, trekked down the avenue leading from the festival venue to train and bus stations in Hasselt. Many had stayed on in the camping ground in the vain hope that the performances would continue on Friday.

The brief, violent thunderstorm on Thursday evening tore down concert tents, several trees and main stage scaffolding. Panicked concertgoers ran through fields of mud looking for shelter.

At a joint news conference Friday, Hasselt officials and festival organizers described weather conditions at the event's opening day as exceptional. They said weather forecasters in the area had not predicted a storm of that intensity.

The Belgian weather service did not provide the speed of the wind, saying only that the storm was "violent."

Chokri Mahassine, the organizer of the annual festival that was first held in 1985, said he had never seen anything like it.

"I have seen many tropical storms, but this was unprecedented," he told journalists. He said he canceled the event "out of respect for the victims, their relatives and friends we felt that the concert could not continue."

"This is the blackest day that any Belgian festival has experienced," Mahassine said. "I would not wish this on anybody."

Belgian Prime Minister Yves Leterme offered condolences to the families of the victims and said authorities would continue to provide assistance in caring for the injured.

Damien Poinen, an 18-year old Belgian, was one of the many people who camped on the festival grounds in the hope that the performances would continue in the morning.

"On the one side (canceling the festival) was the right thing to do. On the other side, some still wanted to party," he said. "Considering the people who died here yesterday, I was not going to stay anyway."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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