Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Stampede within stampede

Part 3

I saw an officer de la policia raise his baton over his head and bring it down somewhere into the crowd ahead of me. Explicably trying to avoid a beating, the people closest to the police surged backward. Then, inexplicably, everyone turned and ran.

I don’t know anything about stampedes, but I figured it was best to go with the flow. So I turned and booked it downhill on the wet street. They weren’t supposed to let the bulls out for a another few minutes, according to my watch, and I didn’t think I was on the course, but my stomach definitely said, ‘I guess this is it Dan, peace out dude, I’m going to chill a few strides behind you if that’s okay.’

I had already lost Paul and Mike in the Saturday morning crowds as we tried finding a place where we could watch the bulls go by, so I only had myself to worry about. People slipped and fell down all over the place, including a girl next to me who didn’t back peddle two steps before meeting the urine-soaked* cobblestone face first.

I haven’t read The Sun Also Rises, the Hemingway novel that’s widely credited with sparking the modern popularity of Pamplona’s Festival de San Fermin, but I doubt he ever mentioned the town’s severe lack of toilets, which results in a truly epic display of public urination.

To quantify the issue a bit further, this isn’t a couple drunk guys sneaking behind a Del Playa fence and letting it fly in the bushes. This is 10,000 drunk men and women at any particular moment during the festival’s evening and early morning hours lined up in every single alcove, alley, portico, and every other place where two walls come together forming a corner for that matter, to answer the call of far too much to drink. But there’s little choice not to partake, a fact the Pamplona city authorities understand. Each morning of the festival, sanitation crews pressure wash every street with huge hoses mounted on trucks, which apparently is much cheaper and easier than providing and servicing enough porti-potties for 2 million drunk people who are going to go when and where they feel like it anyway

Of course, the bulls weren’t coming yet, and definitely not down the street I was on. The crowd had just been spooked by the cops beating people off the course. In the span of about 6 seconds, the mass of people went from pushing and shoving to a full sprint and then back to pushing and shoving for a view of the running.

I couldn’t get a view of the course at the middle market section--the section of the course I planned to run the next day--so I moved to the final strait away where wooden barricades funnel runners through a space about 15 feet wide at the entrance to the stadium.

Through a tiny viewing window formed by the armpit and elbow of a taller guy in front of me, I watched as some runners jogged by, taking up positions where they planned to face down the bulls and race them into the stadium.

I heard the first rocket blast, signifying the bulls had been let out of their pen about 800 meters away. A few seconds later, the second rocket went off, signifying all the bulls were in the street. The crowd went nuts. All I saw in front of me was a mass of white and red outfits streaming past. I figured I would hear the bulls clamouring on the cobblestone before I saw them run by, but without warning they passed in a blur while runners dove over and under the wooden fencing to make way.
The third rocket went off as all the bulls entered the stadium, which seemed to be the signal for the paramedics to jump back on the course and head toward the wounded. A few ambulances forced their way through the crowd, but I heard later that no one had been gored. The most serious injury of the morning had been inflicted upon a Canadian girl, who was trampled after falling down. Local media noted prominently that she had been wearing sandals.


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