How Star Wars Celebration IV Blew Up

UPDATE: How it ends + links to news reports...(see bottom of post)

Star Wars Celebration IV. Friday. Evening.

I had a good time. Judging by the looks on everyone elses faces this seemed to be predominant attitude. A lot of fun things happened. I'll share them.

But first, let me write about how it all went sour in the end.

We were standing in line for the opening ceremonies. We were really excited. Everyone was. The line was really long, stretching outside for blocks, but we were assured we would get in by the nice man holding the "end of the line" sign. We waited. We played sudoku. We listened to the rather excited group of guys in front of us. The line started moving. Slowly, in spurts.

This line walking process took 15-20mins, but we got in the building. We hurriedly followed the line of people up to the auditorium. Some people get stopped. Bags over a certain size weren't allowed, so they had to be checked. This mostly consisted of shopping bags, with recently purchased wares. Toys for kids. Fun stuff.

We didn't have any bags, so we were able to press through. We got the auditorium. We were ten feet away, and suddenly the line stopped. Halted. Everyone was confused. The staff assured us that there was some problem, they didn't know what, and that they were going to sort it all out right away. Okay. Whatever. We were practically there.

Several minutes pass. They seem much longer. No one knows why we've stopped. Men in blue security jackets start pushing people away from the doors. They have walkie-talkies. The staff member closest to us is confused, tries to ask questions, but gets no answers. Meanwhile, the program finally starts. It started late. But we could see it. We could see the USC marching band through the closed glass doors of the auditorium. We could see 501st Stormtrooper brigade following them behind. I think I saw an Ewok on stage. And Indiana Jones. I was ten feet from the door!

People were coming out of the auditorium, staff, and others, who were questioning why no more were allowed in. One woman said it was only 60% full. I can't confirm if that was in fact true or not, but I did see empty seats. A newslady and cameraman exited the auditorium. They were from KCAL 9 I think. (Update: This was actually Amy Murphy and cameraman from Fox 11) The newslady talked to her cameraman as they walked past--"I don't understand why they aren't letting other people inside" she said. I couldn't make out anymore.

The crowd was growing restless. We all felt 10 feet away from the door I think. We were all so close. We could here it, taste it, smell it, see it...but we were not allowed to touch it. There were so many still behind us. My estimate was 1000-1500 people, based on the width and length of the line.

Finally, a man with a tan shirt and highlighted hair came out and told us all to move against the far wall. We were all upset. In our new position we could no longer see through the glass doors. The last two doors were finally shut closed, and we could no longer hear anything. The smell changed from hope to frustration and defeat. The crowd grew angry. Several people started shouting at the man who had come out. "Poor planning!" One shouted. "What's going on?" shouted another.

A new man showed up with a stack of envelopes and began distributing them. They were meant to appease us. Instead it ticked a lot of people off. I told my wife that if things got ugly we'll have to make a run for it. She replied things were already ugly. I've never been in a riot, but began to expect one.

The man with the highlights told us, "as far as I know, this is not a done deal". Dare we hope? Suddenly a new man walked in, a big athletic man with a buzz cut and authoritative voice. He told us we needed to leave the building immediately. This didn't sink in. "Why?" someone asked. "I don't know, but you all have to leave the way you came in. I have been told to clear the building." This didn't sink in either. Some people left immediately. Most of us just stood there. He repeated himself a number of times. Many went back to the check-in table, to reclaim the goods. The large man told them no. He shut down the table and forced everyone to leave without their bags. It was so confusing. "Why are we leaving? Why can't we get our stuff?" People said as they walked past.

I walked slowly. Then quickly. Then slowly. I was just as confused as everyone else. When everyone finally got outside of the building...we all just stood there. My wife and I sat down on the curb. A man with a blue shirt had a walkie-talkie. A crowd gathered around him. I moved over to see if I could hear any news. "When I know something, you'll know something." The man said. I woman barraged him. He repeated himself "When I know something, you'll know something." The woman didn't quit. "When this woman knows something, you'll know something." People laughed. A little. The joke was welcome.

Princess Leia, however, was crying. She was probably six years old, dressed in the white robe-dress, hair in the classic buns. She was very upset. Another man pleaded with the man in the blue shirt "You have to let us go back and get our stuff...I promised my son he could play with his toys tonight." The man in the blue shirt said no. The story got worse. The child was autistic. The father was desperate. The child was sobbing. Anakin Skywalker, from Episode II, with full jedi robes and a gloved left hand sat on the ground sobbing at his fathers feet. No one felt very good. The answer was no. The man in the blue shirt got that message across fairly harshly, perhaps even meanly. I couldn't watch anymore.

I gathered from overheard conversations that the parking garages, like the building, had been evacuated, and no one was allowed to their cars. The man in the blue shirt confirmed this. People were not allowed into the building, or to the parking garages. It was all being taped off by police. The LAPD was to blame. Not the Star Wars Celebration Staff. Still, no one knew why.

Another staff person approached. She declared that shuttles were on their way. This was not very reassuring. Shuttles to where? After a few minutes I was able to ask...they were shuttles back to the hotels.



A little while later we were pushed away from the conference center and told we had to cross the street. Once we crossed the street we were told to move onwards. We couldn't wait there. People grumbled "what am I supposed to do? My car's in there--I'm not at a hotel--I have nowhere to go!". I was in their camp. I grumbled too.



We waited. The building was taped off. Firetrucks and Police cars were everywhere. Flares where on the road, blocking all traffic. A man from San Francisco sat with me and my wife for a while. We grumbled a together a little. Then moved on. We moved down the sidewalk, not knowing what else to do. No one was telling us anything. Bomb squad SUV's started showing up. I personally saw two, people claimed there was four. The "bomb threat" theory floated through the crowd. One man theorized the bomb threat was called in from a "bent Trekkie".



News vans were also everywhere. We were waiting in a crowd of people for warmth when a newsman showed up with a cameraman. (Update: This was Patrick Healy from KNBC 4) He started interviewing people. We all listened in, hoping for more information. There was nothing new. We chatted with a young girl dressed as a Dark Jedi. She was dressed in black and had long fleshy tentacles flowing from her head. A Twi'lek, I believe, and possibly a Sith, but she seemed nice enough. She was hoping for more information too. But it was just the same old.



We finally decided it would be worth trying to get at least closer to our car. We crossed a couple of streets, passed a Han Solo and a very cold looking slave costume Leia, and found a couple of policeman taking pictures with a stormtrooper and a little Jengo Fett, maybe two and a half feet tall. It was cute, and odd, and surreal. Like the LAPD had descended upon us like the Empire.

We went up to a policeman and asked if he knew anything. He said curtly "I'm not allowed to tell you." Oh. Okay. We asked if we could get back into the building. He thought so, and let us partially in. But no, he was wrong, no one was allowed back into the building. We asked about getting to our car, and the particular garage our car was parked within was now open. Finally, and quite unexpectedly, he told us there was a "package", and the police wanted to investigate it. He pointed to another gentleman walking past, "it's about 3 times bigger than the pack he's wearing. Do you know how much C4 you could put into that? 60-70lbs worth. They've been hosing it down with water and know the bomb squad is here."

Great. This made me angry. We walked to our car, and drove home. Some clown plants some thing and our celebration blows up. Or maybe it's not a plant...maybe just some box of toy figures. Maybe it's real, maybe it's not. I guess you can't be to careful, but no such thought made me less angry.

We proceeded to our car, and drove home, rather dejected.

UPDATE--------------------------------------

So the "package" turns out to be a bag of clothes. The people that made it into the opening ceremonies were not evacuated. The mayor of Los Angeles, apparently, was at the opening ceremonies, and he was not evacuated.

The next day I called the Conference Show Office, asked them what was going on and if anything was going to be done about it. The volunteer I talked with said the "higher-ups" were putting together a compensation package. Nice. He said he'll call me back when more details had been gathered. Two hours later, he called me back. He was nice and apologetic, but said the "higher-ups" had made it "abundantly clear" there was to be no compensation for anyone. The conference staff was complying with LAPD orders, and the LAPD was acting in the interest of public safety. So with those two invincible untrumpable unarguable cards played, along with the pre-existing policy of absolutely no refunds for any reason whatsoever, that was that.

News links:

http://cbs2.com/topstories/local_story_146031629.html

Amy Murphy Fox 11
http://www.myfoxla.com/myfox/pages/Home/Detail?contentId=3318501&version=1&locale=EN-US&layoutCode=VSTY&pageId=1.1.1

Patrick Healy KNBC 4
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L8vvOTJgcOY

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

There is something so very fishy about this whole thing. As I expected, the "package" was innocuous, and as far as I can tell from the news reports, there was no actual threat phoned in- rather, someone was spooked by a satchel. (A satchel? In a convention? How odd!).

Meanwhile, the 6,000+ people already inside- including THE MAYOR OF LOS ANGELES and assorted other pseudo-celebrities were allowed to stay through this entire "crisis." (nor were they ever given the option of leaving.) Does this not strike anyone as an odd way to handle an "emergency?"

Isn't it also odd that in an emergency, where we were supposedly being protedcted for our "safety," only one exit was used, and half of the doors to that exit were left locked? Which, with a less polite group of people than Star Wars fans, could have led to a bottleneck and bodily injury? Or the fact that those of us whose "safety" was such a concern were actually sent into the street IN MOVING TRAFFIC? (At least those of us who left before you did were.) If this truly was handled seriously, then LA and the Convention Center need to revise their evacuation methods immediately. Several Convention Center employees shared that their walkie-talkies were also taken from them in the middle of this. How could this possibly be a normal method of evacuation? Especially since we learned from 9-11 that communication is absolutely key in an emergency?

I will also not be at all surprised to hear that the security people around the thousands of dollars in cash and collectibles were also allowed to stay during this urgent crisis.

Either someone is lying, or the operations of GenCon, the Convention Center, and LA's emergency services are all seriously inept. In a real emergency the response that came could have gotten people injured or killed.

Call me a cynic, but is it possible that this crisis was manufactured by GenCon in order to cover up the fact that they handled the line and opening ceremony situation like a bunch of amateurs? (Not that that's a surprise- we are a bunch of amateurs. I estimate from my own experience as a volunteer that 75% or more of the "staff" at this event are unpaid volunteers.) From the very beginning, a count should have been kept of the people online and those of us who had no chance of getting in should have been informed of that so that we could go an do other things with our time.

What a rotten way to end a relatively smooth day.

David Markland said...

I just wrote about this here:

http://blogging.la/archives/2007/05/bomb_scare_at_star_wars_celebr.phtml

dre222 said...

I was one of the 6000 people inside. Nothing stopped, and none of us even knew this happened. When we left the show (a little early) and we tried to go back to the garage my friend parked in. We were told there was only one exit (through the west hall) and that the south hall was closed down. No explanation. So for our safety, we were chucked onto the dark streets to walk for 15-20 in a fairly deserted area to get back to our car with no explanantion or warning. The next day, we started hearing rumors about a bomb scare. Now, at home, I finally get the full story from your blog and a couple of others because a guy from my SW organization posted them to our forum. Great to know that they were really concerned about evacuating the building to make sure EVERYONE was safe. I hate to hear how many fans had to miss out on the opening ceremonies because of this. Check my blog later this week for a rundown and pictures of the opening ceremonies. At least you'll be able to see what was going on inside (with a link to this story too).

mc said...

Where's the pics of Brandon dressed up as the Mighty Sarlac and Dez as Sy Snootles?

What a major bummer! I feel for you guys.

Seriously though, what's the mayor of LA doing at this? Negotiating a peace treaty with the Ewoks of Orange County?

Mr. said...

I was the "nice man" with the "end of the line" sign. So sorry you didn't make it in. I was pretty much as in the dark as you.

As for the mayor, he was there as the whole con was produced with the Mayor's office (usually it's with the convention bureau). He was declaring it "Star Wars Day" in LA.

I hear there was a celebrity that you all know who was ushered out immediately, never to actually appear at the con.

I'm guessing the LAPD thought it better to go on with the ceremonies (I heard 4,000 of the approx. 7,000 seats were full - no idea if someone actually had a good count or not) as there was little room outside for those cleared as it was.

Thankfully, the crowds were very cool and I hope my part helped some (a few told me it did - that actor's training helped with the announcements - from the diaphragm!)

Hope it got better for you after that!

Beth H. said...

Please refer to: http://starwarsblog.wordpress.com/2007/05/26/opening-ceremonies-statement/

Additionally, I ask that you keep in mind that this was for your own safety, along with the thousands of other attendee's. Thank you.

Kindly,
Beth H.
alynyad@yahoo.com