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Book excerpt from "Aquarius Rising" by Robert Santelli

It was there for the whole world to see. The New York Times had made the Woodstock music festival its headline story. A large aerial photo depicted the massive crowd and the festival site as the hub of the counterculture. Accounts filed by reporters accented and even exaggerated the hardships of camping in the mud, the problems with food and water supplies, the drug overdoses, and the disaster-area theme that people on the out­side wanted to read about. What was not pointed out in any detail was that most of those at Woodstock thrived on the adventure and excitement of it all. Those who were participating in the greatest countercultural event of the decade—and perhaps even the century—privately considered themselves heroes and chosen crusaders. They felt the importance of the event every time a news helicopter flew daringly close to the sea of people or someone onstage told them how the whole world wanted to know what was happening at the festival site. When it was all over, they would relate to parents and friends how they managed to endure at Woodstock. The stories and esca­pades that were later told about the festival rivaled old soldiers' war stories in terms of the multitude of sensationalistic and colorful details. It was fashionable to say that one had been at Woodstock, but if all who claimed to have been there had actually attended, the crowd would have numbered in the millions.

By noon on Saturday it was not uncommon to see helicopters setting down close to the stage area to drop off supplies and cart away those who required medical attention. Actually, were it not for the shortage of medical supplies, the medical situation at Woodstock would have been under control. Dr. William Abruzzi, a physician from Wappingers Falls, New York, was in charge of medical personnel and responsible for coordinating an efficient program at the festival. Abruzzi had much experi­ence at this sort of thing. In the past he had organized medical units and first-aid stations for mass antiwar demonstrations and civil-rights marches, and he possessed a firm grasp of what was required in order to handle drug-overdose victims and those suffering from bad trips. Abruzzi worked side by side with Hog Farm members on drug problems and also had at his disposal eighteen physicians, thirty-six nurses, and twenty-seven medical assistants to take care of the more complicated problems. Two emergency rooms were set up in trailers, and a large hospital tent was originally set up to accommodate the expected crowd. But the size of the crowd required that additional medical teams be flown in by an air force helicopter. Abruzzi also set up a large emergency area at neighboring Monticello High School to handle patients who were not actually inside the festival site.

Once it was deemed that food supplies were at the critical level and much of the water from the recently drilled wells had lost its purity in the rainstorms, townsfolk from Bethel and Monticello drew up plans to head off a crisis. A group of women from the local community clubs donated thousands of sand­wiches to the Hog Farm's kitchen, to be given away free to hungry festivalgoers. The concession food stands run by Food For Love Inc. gave away soft drinks and milk as well as what­ever food had not been destroyed by the rain; most of their supply of hamburgers and hot dogs had been consumed the first day. Many of the local merchants in the festival vicinity could have taken advantage of the situation by jacking up prices. Instead, many of them merely continued the neighborly policy of assisting festivalgoers with no money and supplying basic necessities for whatever price the young people could afford.

The rain that began late Friday evening continued for the rest of the weekend. So did the mud. These two problems, how­ever, were rapidly becoming fundamental ingredients of the whole Woodstock phenomenon. Their presence added that extra dimension that helped transform Woodstock from just another summer rock festival into an event. The inclement conditions provided an opportunity for people to display their humanistic and communal regard for their neighbors at the festival site. The spirit of nonviolence and brotherhood was never in doubt, and the fact that this was all happening spontaneously added even more meaning to the event.

Rather than resist the rain and mud, some people in the crowd actually took advantage of it. The news magazines printed photos of young people splashing and sliding in the mud and shunning all clothes after becoming tired of wearing wet ones. But the rainy conditions endangered the lives of those in the crowd and up on the stage, though only a very few people actually knew it at the time.

Because of the amount of rain that had fallen, the dirt that covered the main electrical feeder cables had washed away, leaving them fully exposed to that part of the crowd that was seemingly in continuous motion. As Saturday night wore on, the insulation on the cables wore out and endangered not only those who walked on them but also those in the crowd who were wet and huddled close to the stage. The chief electrician spotted the dangerously thin level of insulation that remained on the cables and immediately informed Joel Rosenman. He told Rosenman that there was a strong chance of mass elec­trocution if all the power at the festival was not turned off instantly and the problem remedied. Rosenman had to make one of the biggest decisions at the festival. He could either turn off the power, which meant no music, no lights, and 400,000 kids sitting in the darkness with nothing to do—or risk frying half the crowd.


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Rockfest Archive Robb Strycharz, 1998-2006
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