Thursday, February 22, 2018
Public safety

One year after deaths, Sunset Music Festival kicks off with emphasis on water and security

TAMPA — Before the beat drops, or even builds, you hear Steve-O.

"If you don't get water you're lame!"

"Hey! Free water! Come on!"

His voice spills over the yellow grass outside Raymond James Stadium. He sounds hoarse, almost desperate, trying out new lines, anything to pull people into his white tent. Steve-O, whose proper name is Steve Raymond, plunges his hand into a long cooler, pushing aside ice to grab another half pint.

"I can't feel my hands. At least take my water, please!"

It's nearly 90 degrees and cloudless. A perfect day for the kickoff of the Sunset Music Festival. But everything that makes the day perfect — clear sky, hot sun — also makes it a threat. Last year, two people died at Sunset following drug overdoses.

The festival brings some of the country's top electronic dance music acts to Tampa, and with them, a concert culture that has drawn heat for its ties to Molly, the street name for MDMA. Overdosed fans at festivals grow dehydrated, too hot, their hearts racing, and pass out. After the deaths at last year's festival, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn condemned the event, asking it to never come back.

But a year later, Sunset has returned, its glitter-coated followers descending on Dale Mabry in tank tops, dayglow swimsuits, and less. This year, promoters vowed to have heightened security, more shady areas to cool down, and more water. Raymond, 22, of New Port Richey, is the first line of defense.

"Ain't nobody passing out on my watch!"

Behind him, his girlfriend, Samantha McLellan, 25, scrambles to keep pace, ripping open the shrink wrap on 8-ounce water bottles with her fingers. She has been to the festival before and said security was definitely tighter this year.

"The kids, they're just getting reckless," she said.

Raymond was at Sunset in 2016 when 22-year-old Alex Haynes, of Melbourne, and 21-year-old Katie Bermudez, of Kissimmee, died. He saw two people pass out in front of him at the general admission line, where for $10 an hour, he now stood hawking water in a white festival T-shirt.

"This is extremely important," Raymond said.

Last year, organizers said, workers handed out 18,000 free bottles of water. They expected to surpass that in 2017, with an anticipated attendance of about 50,000 people.

In the lines to enter, trained dogs from a private company (a new addition) wove between people's legs, sniffing for drugs. Signs out front warned that everyone would be searched, that narcotics laws would be strictly enforced. But the K9s, panting in vests that warned "Do Not Pet," kept stopping, noses pointed at new suspects.

Like the push to drink water, concertgoers said, the security was intense. Nick Borders, 20, of Plant City, said he has been to the festival three times and the wait to get in was long this year.

"This line was a lot slower," he said. "I won't lie."

Inside the festival, people sat in the grass in cooling areas and waited at hydration trailers, filling up backpacks with water. Big fans blew mist in front of the main stage.

Mike Cooke, 25, of Bradenton, said he has been to several electronic music festivals, though never Sunset, and he was impressed at the speed of the water fill-up stations in Tampa.

"The water lines are going real fast," he said.

Outside the festival, the wait to get in eased as the afternoon dragged. Raymond stayed by his station after the first acts took the stage, moving onto a second pallet of bottles.

"Do not pass out, or I'll come fill you with water," he screamed. "Tell them about the free water guy. Come on!"

Times staff writers Sara DiNatale and Jay Cridlin contributed to this report. Contact Zachary T. Sampson at [email protected] Follow @ZackSampson.

   
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