'It cannot happen again:' Mother seeks safety changes at the Gorge after son's death

QUINCY, Wash. -- Concert season at the Gorge Amphitheater in central Washington wraps up this weekend, following another deadly summer at the popular music venue.

The mothers of two young men who died after taking drugs during Paradiso – an electronic dance music festival held at the Gorge every June – are coming together to demand safety changes.

“I carried him for nine months and he’s a part of me,” Heather Brooks said, standing next to an urn holding the ashes of her son. “It’s like a piece of me has died.”

Beau Brooks, 22, of Portland, was one of two deaths this year following Paradiso – an electronic dance music festival held at the Gorge Amphitheater. He died of poising from MDMA, more commonly referred to as ecstasy.

There have long been safety concerns at the Gorge, particularly during Paradiso, where thousands pack the outdoor venue to dance for hours on end as DJ’s spin club music in the hot sun.

In 2013, 21-year-old Patrick Witkowski, a student at Washington State University, also died after taking drugs during Paradiso. The drugs, combined with high temperatures, led to massive organ failure.

“Kids shouldn’t go to a concert and die. That shouldn’t happen. And it shouldn’t be acceptable for this to continue,” said Heather Brooks, who, along with Witkowski’s parents, is trying to prompt change.

“Something’s got to change,” she said. “Medical care has got to change. Health and safety measures and this venue have to change.”

While she acknowledges that her son made a poor personal decision, Brooks argues that the Gorge is unfit to hold an electronic dance musical festival, calling the combination deadly. EDM concerts are known to attract club drugs, such as ecstasy, which can raise a person’s core body temperature and lead to dehydration. Such effects are amplified by the hot climate of Central Washington.

“There’s not enough water. There’s not enough shade, and people were just dropping like flies, honestly,” said Savannah, a friend of Beau Brooks who was also at Paradiso the weekend he died.

Over the past three years, Paradiso has overwhelmed the nearest hospital, Quincy Valley Medical Center, which treated 88 concertgoers in 2013, 45 in 2014, and 53 this year.

State Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, has tried to pass a bill that would add a $1 surcharge onto each ticket sold at the Gorge to help pay for the impact to emergency services. Despite bipartisan support, the bill has never made it to a vote.

“We are so terribly sorry that they lost their children in what we feel is a preventable situation,” he said, “and that not only are we sorry, but we’re incredibly frustrated because we had seen other kids die out there and did our level best to make sure it never happened again, and politics got in the way.”

Manweller said if the bill is not brought up for a vote next session, he will try legislation that would directly regulate rural amphitheaters and require venues like the Gorge to provide a set amount of medical services depending on how many people attend any given concert.

“The loss of Beau and Patrick did not have to happen,” Patrick Witkowski’s parents, Paul and Tracy, said in a statement. “Our fear is it will continue to happen to many more as Grant County, the Gorge and the promoters of the show continue to profit from an environment that should not be allowed to exist.”

Heather Brooks said she would like to see the Gorge and the promoters of Paradiso acknowledge that drugs are used during the festival and take steps toward harm reduction.

“They know full well that thousands of young people are doing Molly at these concerts,” she said.

Elsewhere, organizations like DanceSafe often attend such concerts and speak to young adults about the dangers of club drugs and how to use them safely – much like teaching kids about safe sex.

At some events, DanceSafe provides testing kits to concertgoers who plan to use drugs, reducing the risk for harm. Designer drugs like “Molly” are sold as pure ecstasy, but often contain other substances, such as methamphetamine.

“Harm reduction services and information are essential secondary and tertiary prevention tools,” said Missi Wooldridge, executive director of DanceSafe. “They give concertgoers the opportunity to obtain health and drug-specific education prior to consumption-- potentially preventing negative health consequences such as taking misrepresented or adulterated substances, dangerous drug cocktails, re-dosing, dehydration, heatstroke, or even death. This enables concertgoers to make educated and informed decisions. The goal is prevent concertgoers from even seeking or needing medical services. It switches the focus from treatment and triage to education and prevention.”

The Gorge, Live Nation, and co-promoter USC Events did not return requests for comment, but did issue statements after both Brooks and Witkowski died.

“Live Nation & USC Events take the security and health of all festival attendees very seriously. We are committed to bringing people together to experience music in a safe environment,” they wrote in 2013, following news of Witkowski’s death.

They offered a similar statement two years later when Brooks died.

“Beau is someone I never thought this could happen to,” said his friend, Austin. “I’m sure a lot of people out there have friends and sons and family that experiment with drugs and it could happen to them. I would never want anyone to experience what his family had to deal with and his friends. No one wants to go through that.”

Heather Brooks said she is committed to making changes at the Gorge and preventing another mother from feeling the pain she felt after the loss of her son.

“I need to live for Beau,” she said. “I need to make sure his death is not in vain. There’s something that has to come from this. It cannot happen again. It cannot happen again.”