Laura Walker McNutt was less than a year into her career as a photojournalist for the Chattanooga News-Free Press when she went to Riverbend on Aug.19, 1985. The diminutive Walker was not on duty but carried some of her equipment as she accompanied her father and younger sister to see the Pointer Sisters.
She remembers 34 years later the night an unexpected crowd of 40,000 turned out to hear one of the country's hottest touring acts. She remembers the crush of the crowd inside a fence that lined Riverfront Parkway.
"I think I heard my father talk about that night for so many years that I visualize it through him," said McNutt, whose father, Ray, died several years ago. "The crowd was so tight. It was like a packed subway car in New York or a packed elevator. My father had my younger sister on his shoulders because he was afraid she was going to be trampled.
"He was afraid the horses of the mounted policemen were going to kick us and crush us when the fence came down. My father thought we were going to die."
No one died that August night, but the 4-year-old Riverbend Festival, now 39, saw its future.
Both Barry Courter and Jeff Styles were at the riverfront on Aug. 19, 1985, and have been close to the festival ever since. Courter was there as a student contributing to the Echo, UTC's student newspaper. The next year, he would begin a career as Features Editor at the News-Free Press that continues in its 33rd year today. Styles was still seven years from beginning his talk radio career that continues today and more than a decade away from beginning a second career helping book acts for Riverbend.
"The city was a completely different place, and there was no reason to go downtown," said Courter. "That event showed everyone that people would come downtown in large numbers for a big-time show."
"That was the moment when it was clear Riverbend could be something special," said Styles.
"Riverbend Rocks" was the main headline in the morning Chattanooga Times (25 cents, six sections). The story was the centerpiece of a front page full of news.
There was a story reporting on a TWA pilot doing an interview from the cockpit of a hijacked jet sitting on a runway in Beirut. Energy Secretary John Harrington told Third District Congresswoman Marilyn Lloyd's subcommittee that the decision to close the nuclear enrichment facility and terminate nearly 2,000 jobs was final. At the bottom of the page was a report out of Nashville where the Democratic-controlled General Assembly overrode seven vetoes by Republican Gov. Lamar Alexander.
Editors at the Times did not know about a host of issues that occurred at the festival when the Thursday morning newspaper was released to the press. The afternoon News-Free Press (25 cents, seven sections) did.
"Record 40,000+ Crowd Mobs Riverbend" was the lead headline on the News-Free Press coverage with a second headline that read, "Problems 'Jump In' At Festival." Current Times Free Press photo editor Robin Rudd took the picture that accompanied the two stories showing the massive crowd at Ross's Landing.
The report said, "The Pointer Sisters may have attracted the largest crowd ever Wednesday night to see a Riverbend concert, and even had them 'jumping' to their music, but local law enforcement officers were jumping to other matters – a multitude of traffic accidents on Market and Broad streets and crowd-control problems."
The story quoted a security official saying Riverbend officials stopped counting the spectators "at 40,000. There must be between 50,000 and 60,000 by now." The report went on to describe children being "squashed and splashed with beer," two power failures, lax enforcement of drinking-age rules (age 21 in 1985) and multiple traffic accidents.
"Wednesday night's problems were the first serious ones for Riverbend officials in the event's four-year history," the report said.
The Times story on Friday first reported on the fence that the crowd pushed through Wednesday. "Rawls Takes Spotlight as Fence Comes Down" was the headline beside a picture of Lou Rawls, who performed before a crowd estimated at 20,000, according the newspaper. The lead paragraph said, "The fence that couldn't hold 40,000 people in Ross's Landing on Wednesday night came down Thursday."
Meetings throughout the day following the Pointer Sisters brought immediate changes. Police said they would crack down on illegal parking, aisles at the site were widened, Riverbend paid for more security officers and the fence was not put back along Riverfront Parkway.
Police Commissioner Tom Kennedy said he would ask the City Council to close Riverfront Parkway and told the Times, "The major complaint was that there were too many people in a small area. The result is that changes have been made and, I believe, changes for the better."
Bruce Storey, the festival's director who died in 2014, said, "What we had was the biggest, hottest group in America right now and everyone wanted a chance to see them. I don't really feel we weren't prepared. We are suffering growing pains because of the success of the festival and now we are taking measures to improve the festival."
The two nights people immediately point to as the biggest nights in festival history were the 2002 performance of Lynyrd Skynyrd and the 2014 concert by Widespread Panic. Both Courter and Styles agree those nights are likely the two most profitable in festival history, but both go back to August 1985 as the night that launched Riverbend into two decades of success.
"There was no downtown development then," said Courter. "Helping the downtown was not exactly why the festival started, but that was part of it, convincing people to go to Ross's Landing because there was no reason to go down there. That night was a 'wow" moment. We weren't having that level of shows here. It was an eye opener."
Styles said he and a friend were sitting so close to the stage that they had to look almost straight up to see the Pointer Sisters. He said he feel the crowd building behind him but didn't realize the magnitude of it.
"The fence was a small fence set up with really no reinforcement behind it," said Styles. "I could sense the crush coming in behind us. At one point, we heard the whoops and hollers behind us, and we got up and turned around to look. I saw this huge funnel; the fence fell down and people poured out on the street.
"The people just occupied the space and stopped traffic both ways. I think the people at the festival knew at that moment that they were going to have to have a bigger footprint. I looked around and thought, 'Is this really happening in Chattanooga?' "
Contact Davis Lundy at firstname.lastname@example.org.