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Ten years ago, a pop festival turned to disaster

The devastation left by the storm, the morning after. © Belga

Ten years ago today, on Thursday 18 August 2011, the skies opened above the festival ground of Pukkelpop in Kiewit near Hasselt in Limburg, causing chaos across the country and leaving five people dead.

Pukkelpop – the name referring to a type of spot on the skin, like an acne spot – was founded in 1985 at a location far from its present home, and lasted only one day. It has since grown to become the second-largest music festival in Belgium after Rock Werchter and attracts audiences, many of them well past the acne stage of life, from all over the continent.

But on the evening of 18 August 2011, a thunderstorm broke over the festival ground on the event’s first evening. Tents were carried off by the wind, electricity pylons and giant screens were toppled, lights went out.

Festival guests who had been planning to spend the night on the campground found themselves without shelter, their clothes and belongings soaked by torrential rain, their friends and companions nowhere to be found.

The storm above Pukkelpop. © RMI

To make matters worse, the sudden spike in telephone traffic overcrowded network capacity. Not only could young people not contact their worried parents and vice versa, but the traffic also slowed the operations of emergency services.

As a direct result, the emergency services would later create their own network for internal communication.

Communications moved on to Twitter, which resulted in a mass movement of local people from Genk and Hasselt mobilising to provide aid to those stranded possessionless. Those giving aid also helped put victims in touch with their families, as well as providing food, blankets, and a warm place to stay until something could be done.

In the end, five people died, including one man who died several days later. Hundreds more reported injuries caused by flying debris, falling trees, and equipment.

The organisers of the event announced the festival would be put on hold while the situation was assessed. But the very next day the entire festival was cancelled.

Pukkelpop is in deep mourning,” the organisers said in a statement at the time.

We truly sympathise with the families and friends of the victims. Words are not enough. We have struggled with the decision to continue the festival. Therefore we have decided to cancel Pukkelpop 2011. What has happened is very exceptional and could not have been predicted. We are deeply moved by all the spontaneous support the festival-goers and the organisation have received.”

Pukkelpop 2011, before all hell broke loose. © Niciolas Maeterlinck/Belga