Longform

Fans sue Red Rocks over rockfall injuries

Neon lights cut through the darkness that filled Red Rocks Amphitheatre just before 1 a.m. on September 11, 2011. On stage, Sound Tribe Sector 9 started to play the final song of its encore, a meandering track called "Baraka" that starts out like a trippy lullaby punctuated by throbbing bass notes and then rises and falls in waves of cymbals, bongos and frantic electric guitar. The sold-out crowd whistled and cheered, hands in the air, as they bobbed along with the beat.

See also: Red Rocks: Could loud EDM music cause rocks to fall?

Forrest Hudspeth, then 24, was sitting in the tenth row, just in front of his girlfriend and her friend, enjoying the last bit of the show. Aware that the parking lot would soon be packed with people trying to leave, though, he turned toward them.

"Are you ready to go?" he asked, rising from his seat.

As he stood, something hit him on the top of his head — hard. Hudspeth blacked out and tumbled forward. When he came to, he was facedown on the concrete in row 7. He couldn't see, and he didn't understand how badly he'd been hurt. People were yelling at him to stay down, but in his confusion, he tried to stand up. Hudspeth passed out again, and when he woke up a second time, concert-goers were trying to stanch the blood that flowed from the gash in his head with shirts and other clothing.

A few rows down, Adam Kinnard was dancing to "Baraka" when a large rock struck him in the back of his right calf. Kinnard, then 23, had flown to Colorado from California for the band's three-night run, of which this was the last night. He'd seen STS9, a five-piece collective known for its unique brand of instrumental and computer-generated sound, dozens of times and counted himself among the band's followers — who range from noodle-dancing jam-band aficionados to glow-stick-twirling fans of electronic dance music.

At first, Kinnard wondered what had hit him. But then he saw it: a rock more than a foot long, about eight inches wide and four inches thick, lying in the row in front of him. It was the same reddish-brown color as the two iconic rock formations that flank the amphitheater and give Red Rocks its name.

Meanwhile, Jennifer Ackerman was standing with her cousin on the steps next to row 20. They'd just returned from the restroom and decided to listen to the rest of the show from the stairs rather than squeeze back to their seats. Ackerman's eyes were on the stage when something struck her in the head with such force that she fell on her face, unconscious. When she came to, the Denver mother of two, then 34, found that there was blood covering her face and soaking her hair. Nausea overcame her and she was sick to her stomach.

At around the same time — and thirty rows higher — David Scheuermann was sitting on the handrail of the stairs with his arm around his girlfriend. The couple had been heading toward the exit at the top of the amphitheater when they stopped to listen to the encore. Scheuermann, of Silverthorne, had just turned 23 a few days before, and the STS9 show was part of his birthday celebration. He remembers hearing a loud bang, like that of a firecracker or a gunshot, and then tipping forward off the handrail and landing on his chin. His first thought was that somebody had attacked him. He tried to get up to confront the aggressor, but he blacked out. The next thing he recalls, he was sitting against a stone wall.

"My girlfriend is crying like crazy, and I'm bleeding like crazy," Scheuermann tells Westword. "I sat against that stone wall, watching blood come into my hands, and that's when I was like, 'Shit, something is wrong here.'"

In all, medics at Red Rocks treated seven people who were hit by falling rocks that night, four of whom were transported to the hospital, according to incident reports. Hudspeth, Kinnard, Ackerman and Scheuermann were among those seven and are now suing the City of Denver, which owns Red Rocks Amphitheatre.

One of the big questions in the case is why the rocks fell. Could vibrations from the thumping music have knocked them free? Did people illegally climbing on the big rocks kick or throw them over the edge? Or had they simply been loosened by natural forces?

Regardless of the cause, the plaintiffs believe the city was lax in its efforts to prevent such an incident. Even though the engineers hired by Red Rocks repeatedly recommended that the venue be inspected and maintained every year, city officials decided to do that every three years instead — and 2011 was not one of those years.

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar