Editors note: On July 5 and 6, 1995, the Grateful Dead with Jerry Garcia would play their final shows in St. Louis. Two fans died (one of an overdose) at a Deadheads' encampment near Wentzville, and the next night 108 would be injured in a porch collapse at the same site, making it the most disastrous tour top in the band's 30 year history. After the St. Louis shows, the Dead would play two more shows in Chicago on July 8 and 9, before Jerry Garcia died. This is the original account of a deck collapse that caused the injuries near St. Louis.
They heard claps of thunder, then a loud crack of wood that many thought was more lightning. Just before the fall, an eerie split-second silence.
Although Jerry Garcia's vocals were occasionally reedy, he was in robust form for his 1995 shows at Riverport.
Then the screams.
That is how survivors and witnesses described the collapse late Wednesday of a crowded wooden deck at the lodge of the Pinewoods Camping and Fishing Park, just southwest of Wentzville.
About 5,000 Deadheads - fans and followers of the Grateful Dead rock band - used the private campground as a stop this week in their trek along the band's summer tour.
Most of them had not returned from the concert Wednesday night at the Riverport Amphitheatre, 23 miles east in Maryland Heights, when the deck collapsed. But many who stayed behind because they did not have concert tickets headed for the campground lodge when the thunderstorm struck suddenly about 11:30 p.m. Wednesday.
"I was sitting on the deck against the wall," said Billy Pilgrem, a 19-year-old woman from Vermont. "The storm was bad. There was a scary silence, then `Boom!' People were on top of each other, tumbling about. A sister was under me. A board was on my leg." Deadheads call each other brother and sister.
"There was a guy beneath me whose face was mangled," said Pilgrem, who hobbled barefoot with one crutch Thursday. "People kept stepping on his face. Nobody could see him in the dark."
Paramedics and rescue crews transported more than 100 people to hospitals and treated more at the scene, said Martin Limpert, spokesman for the St. Charles County Ambulance District. About 30 suffered serious injuries, he said, four of them critical ones. One victim with head injuries was taken by helicopter to St. John's Mercy Medical Center in Creve Coeur.
Thursday night, 12 people remained hospitalized, three in critical condition. The identity of one critically injured man was unknown.
Seven area hospitals, including four in St. Charles County, reported admitting or treating 108 people Thursday. Limpert said the ambulance district had received the emergency call from the lodge about the porch collapse about 11:40 p.m.
Pinewoods Camp is a 100-acre campground just south of Interstate 70 at the Pearce Boulevard exit. It has about 400 campsites, but many of the Dead fans slept in tents and vehicles in a grassy field. Limpert said congestion along the campground's narrow lanes had slowed some of the evacuations.
The lodge is a 1 1/2-story wooden building built atop a concrete foundation and surrounded by a wide porch, or veranda, that the sloping shingle roof protects on all four sides. The porch floor on three sides is poured concrete, like a sidewalk.
But on the northern side, the porch has a wooden floor, built atop a patio from which one enters the basement. That's where the accident occurred.
People crowded under the deck and all around the porch to escape the rain. St. Charles County officials, Deadhead camp organizers and many who were there believe there were just too many people on the porch.
The deck, built of 2-by-12-inch joists covered by 2-inch-thick floor planks, broke away from the lodge wall and fell. Two portable toilets, small concrete benches and a sturdy plastic trash bin cushioned part of the deck's fall, providing escape for some of the victims under it.
Many of those atop the deck were buried by the section of roof above them, which fell with the deck.
Eric Smith, 20 of Cincinnati, said he had been sitting in the middle of the crowded porch. He put the accident like this:
"People were just sitting there, chilling. There was silence, then people were franticking."
Inside was Peggy Holloway, 19, who works at Pinewoods as a cashier.
"I heard the big crack, and I looked out and could see people's scared faces. Then they disappeared," said Holloway, who lives in Troy.
Yet another compact summary came from Doug Bledsoe, a partner in Crescent Moon Presents, the company that rented Pinewoods for the Deadhead camp. Bledsoe stayed busy Thursday moving about the campground's jammed asphalt lanes on a golf cart.
"It started raining, the thing collapsed, people were hurt, they got help," Bledsoe said, then drove off.
'People Pitched In'
Limpert said about 150 police and ambulance workers took part in the rescue. He said the 18 ambulances from St. Charles County were assisted by units from as far away as Marthasville and Creve Coeur.
He said about 30 people whose injuries were not serious were taken to hospitals in two Wentzville school buses.
Before the trained help arrived, groups of young Deadheads tried to lift sections of the collapsed deck and roof so others could pull people free. Authorities do not know how many got out before the first Wentzville police officers arrived.
"It was chaos at first, everybody freaking out," said Scott Berry, 20, of Baltimore. "People were trying to help, but many were getting in each other's way. It was still raining real hard."
On Thursday, Deadheads and uniformed officials generally had good words for each other.
"A lot of the young people pitched in and helped, especially when people arrived who could tell them what to do," said Wentzville Police Chief Kenneth Conlee. Pilgrem, the young injured woman, said, "The ambulance people and the police did real well."
Conlee also praised the ambulance and fire crews. "The public should be proud of how quickly they got the job done," he said.