No one taking responsibility for lack of water at Obama rally
Five days after presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. Barack Obama drew a monster crowd to Springfield’s Old Capitol Plaza, it remains unclear who was responsible for providing water to the sweltering attendees.
Springfield authorities now estimate 150 people were treated for heat-related illnesses after crowding onto the plaza to watch Obama and his putative Democratic running mate, U.S. Sen. Joe Biden, in near-90-degree weather Saturday afternoon. Included in the total are 17 people who were taken to hospitals with heat stroke and heat exhaustion.
One man passed out while standing on the Old Capitol fence and struck the back of his head on the pavement. His identity and condition are unknown.
Water was in scarce supply on the lawn. Authorities refused to allow water bottles into the plaza area for security reasons, and event coordinators did not set up misting stations or water fountains or offer free water until shortly before Obama appeared on stage at 2 p.m. Volunteers tried to pass cups of water through the crowd, but most people still missed out.
Authorities who had a hand in the planning said the number of people who turned out for the event — estimated by city officials at 35,000 — far exceeded their expectations.
Justin DeJong, spokesman for Obama for America in Illinois, said Tuesday the Obama campaign provided water for the rally through Downtown Springfield Inc.
“We worked closely with Downtown Springfield to ensure water was available at many locations, both inside and outside the event site,” he said in an e-mailed response to The State Journal-Register.
He added: “The success of the event in Springfield is an incredible tribute to cooperation from city and state leaders, public safety officials, and thousands of local supporters.”
Downtown Springfield Inc. volunteers sold water for $2 per cup at three locations on or near the plaza. The volunteers poured the water from bottles into paper Pepsi cups before handing them to customers.
DSI director Victoria Clemons said that, because the Obama rally overlapped with the organization’s Old Capitol Blues & BBQs event at Fifth and Washington streets, she suggested to Obama staffers that DSI volunteers could sell water at the rally as well. They bought 15,000 bottles.
“In any circumstance where water was needed in emergency circumstances, it was provided,” Clemons said. “We purchased it all, and we gave away about 75 cases. Every volunteer who was working for us just handed it over, no questions asked.”
Having the water stands “wasn’t about making money,” she added. “It was about providing a service.”
Tim Ryerson, CEO of the Illinois Capital Area Chapter of the American Red Cross, said the Obama campaign approached the Red Cross the Wednesday before the rally about supplying water.
“We actually had to decline because the Red Cross doesn’t provide water — only for disaster scenes, not political rallies,” he said. “We’re a neutral organization.”
Red Cross volunteers did contract with the campaign to help emergency medical technicians operate two first-aid stations. One station was on the northwest corner of the plaza, and the other was on Seventh Street between Washington and Jefferson streets.
Eric Pingolt, resident agent in charge for the Secret Service in the Springfield region, said bottled water was banned because bottles can be used as projectiles and because agents have no way of knowing if the liquid inside is harmful.
However, he said, agents also suggested other ways of providing water.
“We recommended misting stations and water stations,” he said.
“In terms of the bottled water, what we said was, listen, we can control it when it’s coming in through a supplier and your people who we’ve checked and credentialed. The agreement was staff would provide water inside by pouring it into cups.
“We made the recommendation to have as much water as possible … Out in 92-degree weather with thousands and thousands of folks, it gets to be a necessity.”
Mayor Tim Davlin, a Democrat, on Tuesday urged people not to “dwell on the negatives” of the event.
“I hate for the local press to make this such a negative thing,” he said.
Davlin said people in the crowd were there “on their own free will, and they could have walked away, and I think what they decided was they’d rather take the heat than lose their position and being able to see something really historical happen.”
The city wasn’t involved in decisions about water supplies, Davlin added.
The only permit required by the city of Springfield was an obstruction permit, which governs street and sidewalk closings and spells out barricade rules, according to mayoral spokesman Ernie Slottag.
By about noon Saturday, people in the crowd, many of whom had waited in line since early morning, began passing out all over the Old State Capitol lawn. Police helped dozens of people, from senior citizens to teenagers and at least one toddler, through the throngs to find help from firefighters and paramedics or a place to rest and cool off on the outskirts.
Travis Heller, 19, of Springfield was among those who passed out and found himself at St. John’s Hospital Saturday, although his situation was the result of a diabetic seizure brought on by not eating since 9 a.m. that morning and standing in the hot sun all day waiting for a chance to see Obama. The last thing he remembers is being interviewed by a Los Angeles Times reporter prior to Obama walking out on stage.
“I just thought it was kind of ridiculous they didn’t have vendors inside the area,” he said. “There’s the whole thing with the water, too. It just doesn’t seem too responsible.”
He intends to remain an Obama supporter, though.
“I’d be a much more supportive Obama supporter if he decided to pick up the tab for my hospital bill,” Heller said.
Jayette Bolinski can be reached at (217) 788-1530.