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After last year's drug-related deaths, Tampa's Sunset Music Festival says it's stepping up safety, security

Last year’s Sunset Music Festival was marked by dozens of medical emergencies.
Last year’s Sunset Music Festival was marked by dozens of medical emergencies.
Published May 26, 2017

TAMPA — Alex Haynes worked three jobs. He had a fiance and an infant son. He owned his own home in Melbourne. Last summer, the 22-year-old attended the Sunset Musical Festival at Raymond James Stadium.

He left in an ambulance.

Hayes and a group of friends used the drug molly, the nickname for MDMA. He and Katie Bermudez, 21, of Kissimmee both died of accidental drug abuse while attending the festival, officials said. MDMA was found in both their systems.

A combination of drug abuse and heat dehydration sent another 57 festivalgoers to the hospital over the 2016 Memorial Day weekend. Mayor Bob Buckhorn said then that the Sunset festival should not return to Tampa, that the two-day electronic dance music festival's promoters were more interested in profit than safety.

But the festival is set to return Saturday. This time, organizers said the concert series — which attracts roughly 25,000 people each day — will have heightened security and safety measures, such as a bigger cooling area and better access to drinking water.

"Protecting the health, safety and welfare of fans is Sunset Music Festival's top priority," said festival spokesman Todd Josko.

The Tampa Police Department hopes last year's medical emergencies prove to be an outlier, said spokesman Steve Hegarty, rather than the new norm. The festival started in 2012 and had gone four years without a major incident. But electronic dance music, popularly known as EDM, has come under scrutiny for other instances of drug use, and even fatalities.

Shannon Rhea, 23, has a group of friends that plan to gather in the stadium's northern parking lots for the start of the festival Saturday. Rhea, who won't be going, is a close friend of Haynes. She hopes this year, all her friends stay safe.

"It does worry me," she said, "because I know how easy it is to get caught up in the excitement of the lights and music and lose yourself."

The festival's promoters and the police have been advertising a strict zero-tolerance policy for drug use on social media. They made a short video going over the concert's "dos" and "don'ts."

The festival gave out 18,000 bottles of free water last year, but Josko said organizers plan to give out even more this weekend. Concertgoers will also have access to more tented areas where they can fill their own water bottles for free or buy drinks with electrolytes.

The psychoactive drugs associated with EDM concerts leave users feeling hot and over-exerted, said Dr. Alfred Aleguas, managing director of the Florida Poison Information Center in Tampa.

"You can have a body temperature that is inconsistent with life: 105, 106, 107 degrees," he said. "Even somebody young can't tolerate that."

Aleguas said drug users can get so overheated that they can end up drinking a life-threatening amount of water in an effort to cool down.

"I really hope this year's festival goes better," he said. "I know promoters are really trying to address the issues."

Josko said the festival's organizers have worked with Tampa police to increase the number of officers, police dogs and medical teams that will be on hand this year. Officers made 25 felony arrests last year, including an 18-year-old found with nearly half a pound of MDMA.

The two-day show, with EDM headliners such as Major Lazer, Above & Beyond, RL Grime and Zeds Dead, will attract fans who like to dance while clad in neon, glitter and tie-dye.

"The overwhelming amount of the over 51,000 people there between Saturday and Sunday, they're not there to do drugs," Josko said. "They're there to have fun."

Rhea said the attendees need to look out for each other, too. She wonders if something as simple as using the buddy system to keep tabs on each other could have saved Haynes, who was separated from his friends last year.

"You don't have to be a drug abuser to lose your life, all it takes is one mistake, just one slip up and that could be it," she said. "Alex wasn't stupid. He just made a mistake."

Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale@tampabay.com or (727)893-8862. Follow @sara_dinatale.

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