Thursday, September 14, 2000

Oktoberfest-Zinzinnati opens this weekend

Festival security little changed

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] Tom Harten of Mecklenburg Gardens restaurant competes in a beer barrel race on Fountain Square on Wednesday.
(Michael E. Keating photos)
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        The suggestions poured in this year when Cincinnati police started talking about how to avoid another drunken driving disaster at Oktoberfest-Zinzinnati.

        Some recommended concrete barriers at every intersection and police on every corner. A few even wanted to ban beer.

        In the end, city officials changed almost nothing.

        They reasoned that no amount of security could prevent the kind of dreadful incident that ended Oktoberfest last year: A drunken driver plowed through a crowd barrier and injured more than 30 people.

        It was the first incident of its kind in 24 years of Cincinnati Oktoberfests, organizers say. The festival — which attracts about 500,000 people — begins Friday downtown and runs through Sunday.

  • What: 25th annual Oktoberfest-Zinzinnati.
  • When: Opening ceremonies begin at noon Friday, with a pep rally from 1-8 p.m. Festival runs 11 a.m-11 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday.
  • Where: Five blocks of Fifth Street, from Race to Broadway, downtown.
  • Admission: Free.
  • Information: 579-3191;
        “It was an aberration,” said Police Lt. Ron Higgins. “It's something that's just not preventable.”

        Organizers say those who attend Oktoberfest this weekend will find plenty of familiar sights: Cold beer, accordion music and the world's largest chicken dance — led by former Monkee Davy Jones on Saturday.

        They say they're confident there will not be a repeat of the Sept. 19, 1999, incident, in which 26-year-old Michael Cowperthwaite of Clermont County drank 88 ounces of beer in 20 minutes, then drove the wrong way down a one-way street, through a barricade and into the crowd.

        He was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

        Just weeks later, a committee of police officers, firefighters, traffic engineers and city officials began discussing ways to improve safety at Oktoberfest.

[photo] Ginny Meacham of Wertheim's Restaurant carries mugs in another race Wednesday.
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        “A lot of people were saying we've got to put up concrete barriers, we've got to keep everybody out,” said Lt. Higgins, who oversees event planning for Cincinnati Police. “But if you look closer, you see problems with that.”

        The main problem, he said, was that every suggestion seemed to create more safety concerns:

        • Concrete barriers might keep a driver like Mr. Cowperthwaite out, but they also would keep out ambulances, fire trucks and other emergency vehicles.

        • Stronger barriers also would make it more difficult to evacuate the crowd if some other kind of disaster struck.

        “It wasn't felt a total overhaul was necessary,” said Raymond Buse III, spokesman for the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce. “What happened last year was tragic. But we don't feel it was anybody's fault but the driver's.”

        Mr. Buse said drastic changes — such as banning beer — were rejected because it made no sense to penalize 500,000 party-goers for the actions of one man.

        “The strong safety record of Oktoberfest is still the benchmark by which Oktoberfest should be judged,” he said.

        Still, festival organizers are making some minor changes.

        Police will be at every entrance and exit this year, and volunteers will more aggressively promote the free cab service for those too intoxicated to drive.

        Lt. Higgins would not say how many officers will be on duty, but there will be “a few more” than last year, he said.

        More “road closed” signs will be posted around the street festival, and new reflective tape will appear on the metal barricades, he said.

        Lt. Higgins said he's confident the safety plan will protect party-goers without ruining the party. He said the odds are against anyone trying to do what Mr. Cowperthwaite did last year.

        “It's only occurred once,” he said. “We're hoping it won't occur again.”
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