At Coachella, spotlight on safety after apparent overdose

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Coachella has marked several ‘firsts’ throughout its 15 years history, and now the acclaimed music and arts festival is grappling with its first apparent fatality.

A Coachella attendee who was hospitalized after last week’s festivities died Thursday due to an suspected drug overdose, the Riverside County Sheriff coroner’s office told KCRW on Friday. The 24-year-old woman, identified as Kimchi Truong of Oakland, CA, reportedly collapsed early Sunday morning while attending the second day of Coachella’s weekend-long festival.

In some ways, it’s hard to believe there haven’t been any reported deaths in the past. The festival’s location — the Empire Polo Field in Indio, CA — boasts little natural shade, and April temperatures in the high desert can reach well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Coupled with rampant drug use in relatively plain sight, heavily marketed alcohol and long lines at water spigots to fill up water bottles, the risks are measurable.

“We are saddened to learn the individual has died. We believe this to be an unfortunate but isolated incident,” concert promoter Goldenvoice said in a statement. “Our thoughts and condolences are with the family and friends.”

Truong was first taken to JFK Memorial Hospital in Indio, but later transferred to the Desert Regional Medical Center, where she was pronounced dead, according to the coroner’s report. But Sgt. Curt James of  the Riverside County Sheriff coroner’s office said he could not confirm the exact cause of Truong’s death, noting that his department “hadn’t conducted its investigation yet.” He said the initial report was an “alcohol or drug overdose,” but that his department’s investigation could take up to four weeks to complete.

The apparent overdose follows other recent high-profile accidents, including at the SXSW in Austin – where a driver plowed into a late-night crowd, killing two and injuring close to two dozen others – and the Ultra festival in Miami, where a security guard was trampled by a crowd. Both incidents have refocused attention on safety issues at large festivals.

As for Coachella Weekend 2, Indio Police Department spokesman Benjamin Guitron said the fatality has not raised his concerns surrounding the inherent safety risks at the festival. He pointed to a decline in arrests from last year’s Coachella as a promising sign – 80 arrests this year, compared to 91 during last year’s first weekend.

When asked about drugs being smuggled into the festival, Guirton noted that concert-goers have many opportunities during the corn maze-like entrance to the festival to surrender illicit drugs to law enforcement and private security officers without fear of arrest.

“People coming to the festival have to make a decision… are you going to break the rules – break the law – or have a good time,” Guitron said. “Is that really what you want? Because you’re going to go county jail.”

And while Guitron did not refute that drugs would be present at Coachella Weekend 2, he said law enforcement would do what was necessary to detain roisterers intent on distributing drugs to patrons, adding that his department will solicit help this week from a number of law enforcement agencies around Indio, including the Riverside County Sheriff’s Dept., the Desert Hot Springs Police Dept., and the California Highway Patrol, among others. He would not confirm how many of Indio’s 69 sworn officers will be stationed at Coachella this weekend, or the total number of law enforcement on hand, citing security concerns.

Despite a sizable police presence, apprehending revelers bringing alcohol and drugs into the event has been notoriously ineffective. Hired security guards handle the majority of the pre-festival screening, and have proven to be lax when it comes to cracking down on drugs.

Still Guitron said he’s confident this weekend’s tragedy won’t become the norm.

“Our purpose it to make sure people enjoy themselves, and that the festival is safe,” he said. “But if people are making poor choices, we have to act.”