Red Rocks to revamp evacuation plans and improve messaging after hailstorm injuries at Louis Tomlinson concert

Stephanie Wolf/CPR News
A sunny day at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Morrison, September 2019.

Red Rocks Amphitheater outside Morrison will immediately resume concerts while looking at ways to help people evacuate more quickly in the event of an emergency after a hail storm pummeled fans at an outdoor concert Wednesday night.

Staff issued a mandatory evacuation order for the amphitheater just after 9 p.m. Wednesday, less than 10 minutes before golf ball-sized balls of ice rained down on the crowd of 6,000 attendees ahead of a Louis Tomlinson concert.

At least seven people were hospitalized and between 80 and 90 attendees received on-site treatment from paramedics following the storm.

Leaders will “help educate fans better on how to move quickly” by posting more signage with stronger messaging about leaving during severe storms, said Brian Kitts, Red Rocks spokesman. 

“We need people to understand that ‘go’ means ‘go now,’” Kitts said. “We’ll probably turn it around for Thursday’s show.”

In the afternoon leading up to Wednesday’s concert, venue staff monitored weather forecasts like normal, Kitts said. Red Rocks contracts with a private, on-site meteorologist to issue weather alerts during concerts.

Venue staff are hesitant to postpone shows altogether due to adverse weather forecasts, Kitts said. Shows at Red Rocks routinely take place in all types of weather conditions, including rainy, hot and snowy conditions. 

“If you've lived in Colorado for any amount of time, you know that if you cancel every single event early in the evening, you're gonna have a lot of canceled events that could have gone on,” he said.

How the storm hit the concert on Wednesday night

On Wednesday, following an opening act for the concert, Red Rocks’ meteorologist delayed the show due to lightning in the area. 

“Please seek shelter in your vehicle and we’ll let you know when we’ve received the all clear,” said a tweet from the venue at 8:07 p.m.

The venue also posted the message on large electronic billboards that frame the main stage.

Many fans remained in their seats though, according to venue officials and fans present at the concert. 

Less than 30 minutes later, the venue lifted the warning based on advice from Skyview, its contracted meteorology service. 

Shortly after, Skyview detected another, stronger storm cell approaching the venue, Kitts said. The venue flashed evacuation orders on its billboards and announced an order over a loudspeaker for fans. 

“We didn’t know how big the hail was going to be or how intense it was going to be,” Kitts said. 

The crowd heeded the second warning and began to exit the amphitheater. Some took refuge in indoor areas like bathrooms, the visitor center and backstage, but Kitts said there’s not enough room for all concertgoers to take shelter in those places, which is why Red Rocks urges people to return to their cars.

'It was a nightmare scenario': One concertgoer's account

Justin Larson had purchased tickets for his wife and niece for the event. It was the group’s first trip to Red Rocks, and they were surprised at how relaxed and unconcerned the crowd and venue were about earlier weather alerts. 

“Nobody left during the first alert,” he said. 

When the second alert blared over a loudspeaker shortly after 9 p.m., he gathered his things and began to walk toward the venue’s stage right stairs. 

The crowd moved slowly towards the exit. Less than 5 minutes later, he remembers, large pieces of hail began falling around them like “meteors.”

Concert attendees screamed and hid under trees and tried to get into concession booths, where some concertgoers said employees tried to block fans from entering while telling them to go to their cars for shelter. Video shows waterfalls of icy water and hailstones running downstairs during the event.

Larson told his niece and wife to cover their heads with concert T-shirts. He then tried to cover them with his body as hail began falling faster. 

“I just got blasted,” he said. “It felt like 10 years.” 

He eventually pushed his way into a concession booth and waited out the hail.

The storm lasted about 10-15 minutes, Larson remembers. Afterward, he saw people standing around crying. Some attendees laid on the ground holding their heads, which were bleeding.

“Some people didn’t get under anything,” he said. “It was mostly kids and teenagers.” 

Later, Larson checked himself into a hospital near his home in Arvada and was diagnosed with symptoms of a concussion. 

The experience was traumatic for him, he said. 

“I thought for a second I might lose the people I love,” he said. “It was a nightmare scenario.”

Other venues affected, and more severe weather on the way

Storms wreaked havoc on venues other than Red Rocks Wednesday night. A Colorado Rapids game got canceled. And hail pummeled most parts of the Denver Metro. 

More severe weather is in the forecast Thursday night. Red Rocks officials say they plan to monitor conditions like normal ahead of the scheduled Shakey Graves concerts. 

The National Weather Service says hail could fall in the Denver area again Thursday, with some of it severe. Severe thunderstorm warnings were in effect Thursday afternoon for the area around Red Rocks.