Police Chief Paints Vivid Picture of Mayhem at Wellmont
Residents want assurance something similar doesn't happen again
Montclair Police Chief David Sabagh painted a vivid picture before the township council Tuesday night of the events surrounding the mayhem that occurred last week during The Barstool Blackout Tour at the Wellmont Theater.
At that event, six people were arrested, four police officers were injured, and 21 young people were taken to area hospitals after a crowd outside the Wellmont erupted into a violent and drunken melee Thursday night.
Sabagh said that he first heard about the event Thursday afternoon from the campus chief of police at Montclair State University.
He said he checked with people at the Wellmont, who told him that it was not a big deal.
"But it turned out to be a big deal ... a very big deal," he said.
Sabagh said the trouble began early in the evening when people mostly aged 18 to 25 began arriving in Montclair drunk via trains from Long Island and from as far as Connecticut and beyond.
"They were passing out before they even got to the venue," he said.
Sabagh said that the Wellmont, which was searching ticketholders as they entered the theater, simply couldn't get everyone inside fast enough.
"They failed to plan a way to get people inside quicker," he said.
As a result, police faced an unruly crowd of about 1,500 outside and 800 or 900 inside with a "group mentality," he said.
"We had one young lady almost get trampled to death ... we had to form a wedge and drag her out," he said.
At that point, police were forced to shut the event down and those inside the theater were told to leave.
Sabagh said that, initially, police couldn't possibly have arrested all the people spotted committing various violations of the law.
He noted that, later in the evening, the local force was bolstered by a response from 10 nearby communities.
Mayor Jerry Fried said "we haven't heard anything but praise for the response to the incident."
But some anger was expressed toward the Wellmont, with one resident noting the amount of trouble she would have been in if she'd held a similar event at her home.
Township Manager Marc Dashield said the township has expressed its concern to the Wellmont.
"We expressed our concern about the type of event. This is not the type of event for Montclair," he said. "I think they agreed with that."
Dashield said that monthly meetings would be held going forward between police and those at the Wellmont to talk about upcoming events to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.
Jonathan Hirsh, president of the Montclair Ambulance Unit's Emergency Medical Services, also spoke at Tuesday night's meeting, noting that there was a private ambulance service at the Wellmont when local officials arrived Thursday night.
"We don't know if it was the promoter or the Wellmont that hired this," he said.
Hirsh said that, at one point, there were 13 ambulances on the scene, adding that 21 patients were transported to three hospitals within three hours.
Councilor Renee Baskerville asked whether it mattered that the Wellmont currently operated with only a temporary certificate of occupancy.
In the summer of 2010, the theater was forced to close when a chunk of plaster came crashing down from the ceiling but was allowed to re-open with a temporary certificate of occupancy.
"They are allowed to host events there," Dashield said. "It's going to take considerable time to fix the roof."
Byron Huart, who shot a video of Thursday night's event that has been used by the media—including Montclair Patch—said he hopes the video can be utilized by police as evidence.
"We got lucky in this case," he said. "What if these people had gotten [more] violent? Businesses could have been damaged."
Councilor Rich Murnick joked that, going forward, "we need more Tony Bennett concerts."
Last week, Fried described the mayhem that ensued during The Barstool Blackout Tour as an "unfortunate and unusual situation," citing it as an aberration.
The Wellmont Theatre opened in 1922 as a live theater house, but switched to a movie-oriented theater in 1929. The Wellmont closed in 2006, but re-opened in November 2008 as a concert and live events venue. The capacity of the Wellmont is approximately 2,500.