Glitches mar Zozobra as 2,000 ticket holders miss show

September 2, 2018

More than 62,400 people gathered Friday night at the Fort Marcy Ballpark and Magers Field to watch Old Man Gloom go up in flames.

But production organizer Ray Sandoval didn’t tout the record-breaking crowd at the 94th burning of Zozobra. Instead, he was wrangling with a policy change that ultimately led to 2,000 people getting locked out at the gates as the show got underway.

Some of those ticket holders had waited in line for an hour or more to get into the park.

“We screwed up,” Sandoval said Saturday. “We take responsibility for that, and we’ll figure out a way to get these folks their refunds.”

Sandoval called the flub a “perfect storm” of complications — from security checks to miscommunication to unforeseen thunderstorms and an early start time.

It all started with a decision to reverse a long-standing “no backpack” policy.

Sandoval said he and other organizers tossed the policy in an attempt to make the 1960s-themed celebration feel like a true throwback to the decade — allowing families to bring their picnics in a knapsack, camp out on the lawn and enjoy the show without fear of a mass act of violence.

Check-in lines ran so smoothly at last year’s event, Sandoval said, that “we felt confident we could handle a backpack search.”

The last time the Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe, which presents the burning of Zozobra each year, allowed backpacks into the park was prior to 2001, Sandoval said.

The backpack revival didn’t quite go as planned.

Initially, Sandoval said, only five of the 20 entry lines to the ballpark allowed people with backpacks, which had to undergo an extensive security check. Around 7 p.m., organizers decided to open another five lines to backpacks to accommodate a mass of people carrying bags.

Because of a miscommunication, Sandoval said, 15 lines opened for backpack searches — which slowed the security checks for everyone waiting to get into the show.

The wait grew to about about an hour, he said.

Meanwhile, Sandoval decided to begin the show about 15 minutes early so Zozobra could burn between two severe storms that rolled over Fort Marcy, bringing lightning and heavy downpours.

When people waiting in line saw the fireworks signaling the start of the burn, Sandoval said, many of them — with and without bags — ran through the gates, trying to get a glimpse of Old Man Gloom.

In response, organizers and law enforcement blocked the remaining ticket holders from entering the park, out of concern that someone might sneak in with a weapon hidden inside an unchecked bag.

“I apologize to those 2,000 folks that were left out, but my first duty is to make sure that everybody is safe,” Sandoval said. “We apologize to them. We’re going to make it right.”

When police blocked entry, some patrons stood outside the ticket booth and chanted, “Full refund.” Others scaled concrete walls trying to get in.

“We caused that backup. We frustrated people to the point where they ran the gates because the show was starting and they had been in line for over an hour,” Sandoval said. “… To have an hour-and-a-half wait, and for some people [to be] ultimately blocked … even though they were in line early enough, it’s unacceptable.”

The lockout was particularly vexing for hundreds of people who had ridden a Zozobra-sponsored Rail Runner train from as far as Belen and Albuquerque.

Kimberly Gray, 57, said she boarded the train at the Rail Runner’s Isleta Pueblo Station to meet up with her daughter, who had boarded in Belen. They arrived at the Santa Fe Depot at 8:30 p.m., and were greeted by a row of shuttles prepared to haul the train passengers to the Fort Marcy Ballpark.

They got stuck in the long line, Gray told The New Mexican, “kind of like cattle in a slaughterhouse.”

After missing the show, they waited another hour for a bus to take them back to the train.

Gray criticized organizers for failing to prepare for the large crowd, and for shutting out those who had traveled so far to watch Zozobra burn.

“They didn’t think about the train,” she said, “and shuttle after shuttle bringing people in.”

Some train riders turned to social media to express their ire.

“Not allowed into an event I paid $22 for, after a TWO hour train+shuttle ride (that came with my ticket…),” a Twitter user posted. “This event was poorly planned and NOT worth it…feeling #rippedoff.”

Others questioned on social media whether the Kiwanis Club had oversold tickets to the show.

Sandoval denied that, saying the capacity of the venue is close to 88,000 people.

He and other Zozobra organizers are discussing how to refund ticket holders who were locked out or offer tickets to next year’s show, Sandoval said, and in some cases help offset hotel costs for guests who traveled to Santa Fe to see the show but didn’t get inside the gates.

Details of how to claim refunds will be posted on the Zozobra website Tuesday, he said.

Update hourly