U2 fans line up before dawn at Ray Jay Stadium

About 200 U2 fans were lined up at dawn Friday, hoping to be among the first inside Raymond James Stadium in Tampa for what is expected to be a sold-out concert.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

About 200 U2 fans were lined up at dawn Friday, hoping to be among the first inside Raymond James Stadium in Tampa for what is expected to be a sold-out concert.

TAMPA — The heat index cracked 104 Friday afternoon at Raymond James Stadium. A woman got sick. Another in a paramedic vehicle held an ice pack to her head as sweaty bodies pressed forward in line, inching closer to the loading dock where they would wait their turn to run on the field.

Anything to see U2. The legendary Irish band was in town for its 10th concert in Tampa, rocking its most extravagant tour ever. The stadium would fill with more than 70,000 screaming fans.

"Back away from the gate!" a Tampa police officer yelled at those trying to get onto the dock. "Now!"

A man toward the back of the general admission herd jumped up and down a couple of times, trying to see what was ahead.

Under the shade of the dock, closer to the field than anyone else, stood the handful of fans who had been waiting long before the elaborate tailgate tents went up in the parking lot, before the Greenpeace workers arrived with their clipboards, before the dudes playing corn toss woke up.

They'd been there for 24 hours.

• • •

The parking lot opened at 7 a.m., as the first sliver of pink appeared in the sky. But the most hard-core U2 fans had been camped there since 4 p.m. Thursday.

The scene looked like a makeshift campground — a mess of tents, umbrellas and lawn chairs, Rolling Stone magazines and old concert programs, coolers and bags of chips — all on unshaded concrete. As the day passed, Tampa firefighters saw a steady stream of heat-related illnesses, including two people who went to a hospital.

About 100 people held their places in line, waiting to be among the first to fill the 2,400-capacity pit on the field and maybe even snag a coveted spot at the rail. Numbers were written in marker on their hands denoting their order.

Melissa Allen was No. 1.

The 40-year-old from Tampa has seen U2 more than 60 times. Her favorite song? "That's like asking who your favorite child is," she said.

Spending the night was no big deal. Like many of the others, she'd done it before. Once you watch a show from the rail, they say, it's hard to go back.

She was there with No. 2, who declined to give his name because he didn't want to get in trouble for skipping work. No. 3 was fast asleep.

Behind them, in spot No. 4, was Mala Meehan of Coral Springs. She was there with No. 5, Sarah Costanzo of Australia, who came to North America with a friend for a film festival and the U2 show. Both met at a 2005 Miami U2 concert, where they shared the front rail.

U2 fans are a special breed, Costanzo said. They're drawn together by the music, but also generally share lead singer Bono's progressive and humanitarian world views.

Neither has a problem going to shows solo.

"You meet so many people here waiting," Meehan said. "You really don't need to come with anyone else."

• • •

There's an entire culture associated with camping for general admission to U2 concerts. On the band's official Web site, a blogger named Joe wrote an unofficial guide:

Q: Can I get the queue early and save spots for my friends who will arrive later?

A: Touchy issue…

Q: Can I temporarily leave the queue and come back?

A: I've seen people come really early, get a number written on their hand, leave for the entire day and then come back an hour before the gates open. This ruffles the feathers of quite a few fans who "did their time" in the queue.

Other unwritten rules: Bring people food or beer if you go for a run, and don't litter. Just think: What would Bono do?

The fans drove in from all over Florida. But others made a longer trek. Mariana Schermann, 21, flew in from Brazil. And a group of six co-workers came from Guatemala.

U2's last Tampa show was at the St. Pete Times Forum on Nov. 16, 2005. But the locals have traveled since then.

"What number were you in Hawaii?" Steve Lawrenz of Fort Myers asked Stu Kowal of Boca Raton.

"163."

"I was 128."

This time, Kowal, 51, brought his 14-year-old son, David. It was Dad's 86th U2 show, and the son's first. Kowal felt pretty proud of himself for being a "cool dad," he said. "My dad was square."

As the sun found its place in the sky, a song blasted on someone's iPod speakers:

It's a beautiful day …

Times staff writer Robbyn Mitchell contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

U2 fans line up before dawn at Ray Jay Stadium 10/09/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 10, 2009 7:00am]

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