Heroism on the Coachella Ferris wheel: A lifeguard catches a jumper by the ankle
Indio police spokesman Benjamin Guitron: "You read about other concerts, and some of the issues that they have, and we know we are very fortunate here."
Kendall Huberman and her friends wanted to take advantage of the sights from the Ferris wheel at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival. They also had a deadline, as they wanted to catch rock act the Black Keys at 8:30 Friday night. So at the start of the hour, the group headed to the Ferris wheel line, were led to a gondola and began their ride.
And then, as Huberman and her friend Kyle Flanders tell it, things got surreal. As the Ferris wheel was beginning its ascent, a young woman suddenly made a dash for their carriage. In separate interviews, Huberman and Flanders described her as about 5-foot-1. She said nothing after jumping into the gondola. Flanders, however, recalled that she was making indecipherable noises.
"We had started moving, and she jumped in really fast," said Huberman, 20, of Manhattan Beach and a student at UCSB. "We were kind of annoyed that she decided to jump into our gondola, so we just decided to ignore her and enjoy the ride. Then literally, as soon as we got high enough to where anything you could see from a bird’s-eye view..."
Huberman trailed off, as what happened next, she said, was something no one was expecting or could prepare for. "She stood up, lifted her arms and dove from the gondola head first," said Huberman.
Early Saturday, a rumor was spreading around the Coachella grounds that a young woman had attempted to jump off the Ferris wheel. There weren't too many details, though the on-site firefighters confirmed that it did happen, and confirmed that she was saved by someone on the ride with her.
After speaking with numerous health, security and law enforcement officials, it became clear that the story existed in numerous forms. Pop & Hiss posted what was known as of late Saturday afternoon and promised an update when or if more information was available. The very next day Huberman's father contacted The Times, and said his daughter was on the gondola with the woman who tried to jump. He passed along his daughter's contact information.
As for the person who saved the woman, that is believed to be Flanders, a 24-year-old swim instructor/lifeguard for a Spectrum Athletic Club.
He agreed to talk to Pop & Hiss Tuesday afternoon, but wanted to stress the following: "I love Coachella. I love the Ferris wheel. I am definitely going again next year. Everything was run great. It was 50 times better organized this year. There was a lot more space. I liked the placement of the Ferris wheel better. There were so many overall improvements.
"I’m really worried about the girl more than anything in the world," he continued. "I want to find her and I want to get in touch."
More than a few have emailed, taking credit for the rescue, and in an effort to avoid a hoax, Flanders was asked for verification that he was indeed on the Ferris wheel with the woman who attempted to jump. Flanders provided numerous pictures -- all taken immediately after the incident on the gondola -- as well as video of the same woman being assisted by medical staff. Due to privacy concerns and the unknown identity, condition or whereabouts of the woman, Pop & Hiss will not post either the photos or the video.
As to what, apparently, happened on the gondola on Friday night, this is how Flanders tells it:
"The very first stop we get to, she gets up out of her seat," said Flanders, who was taking a picture as she stood. "I see her stand from the corner of my eye, and she starts to lean forward like she’s going to jump. I black out at this moment. I cannot tell you how I was able to grab her ankle, but the next memory I have is her dangling with my right hand -- maybe 40 or 50 feet above ground."
Her head and body were completely out of the capsule, said Huberman, who reached to grab her other ankle and then helped pull the woman back into the gondola.
"Her body was completely limp when she was hanging out," Huberman said. "When we got her back in, we put her on the floor. I was holding her down by her shoulders. We had to force her down as she kept trying to get back up. She would go through resisting and not resisting."
Added Flanders: "If she had weighed any more, there is no way I could grab her with one hand. Every time I close my eyes I see her slip out of my hands. I know I caught her. This is really hard. Luckily, my girlfriend wasn’t sitting in my place. We were freaking out. Our friend Hannah? That was her first time on a Ferris wheel. My girlfriend was just screaming."
One of the images provided by Flanders shows Huberman holding the woman down. The supposed jumper does not appear to be wearing a Coachella wristband, and Flanders remembers her arms as being bare. The video in which the woman is receiving care is difficult to watch, as she is attempting to resist help. Flanders' friends are heard shouting at him to stop filming.
Yet there's still more to the rescue story, said Flanders. The group didn't get off the ride, he said, but the jumper did. "We go around and we yell to the Ferris wheel guy what happened," he said. "She gets out and just books it. Books it. Then we stay on and when we’re getting off the Ferris wheel we see her standing in line to get on it again, and she’s looking up at it like she’s in love with it."
The group then said they split up. Huberman said she went to find help. Flanders said he stayed at the Ferris wheel to make sure she did not get back on. "We tell everyone in line that that this girl tried to kill herself," he said. "No one wanted to believe us. Everyone thought we were the crazy ones. But one of the guys in line realized [the mental state] she was in. He picked her up, and brought her to the cops."
Attempts to find out more information on the woman have been futile. Indio Fire Battalion Chief Daniel Talbot said he was aware of what happened, but Flanders and Huberman said they weren't questioned, and little in the way of an official briefing is available.
"The genesis of the problem at the Ferris wheel was that the guest had an altered level of consciousness due to some kind of substance," Talbot said. "I didn’t run into anyone who had actually participated in that event. To be honest, it was a nonevent. I do know it happened. But because there weren’t any major medical issues, we had to move on to the next thing."
Flanders was a little hesitant to talk to the media. Though Ferris wheel accidents can and have happened the world over, Flanders was concerned that a report of anything gone wrong at a music festival -- even an averted random event -- is at risk of being blown out of proportion. Yet Coachella, managed by local AEG-owned promoters Goldenvoice, is said by law enforcement and safety officials to be one the smoothest-run fests around.
"We have been fortunate here," said Benjamin Guitron, a spokesman for the Indio Police Department. "The people who come to these concerts are, for the most part, really goodhearted people. Some of them come dressed like you wouldn’t believe. Some of the clothing they're wearing? I don’t even have pajamas that look like that. But if you talk to them, everyone is friendly, and that’s impressive because nobody really likes the police."
Guitron said arrests were on par with those of last year at 49 -- "about a dozen of which were for trespassing," he said. The rest were alcohol/drug offenses. Two years ago, the fest tallied 68 arrests.
In terms of medical emergencies, Talbot said numbers were drastically down from those in 2010. He attributes that to Goldenvoice, which he said invested heavily in adding EMTs and doctors to the grounds. "From my perspective, the festival went very well," he said. "Inside of our all medical tents, we had a slight increase in the number of patients seen. I would attribute that to the hotter weather. But we ended up with only 48 ambulance transfers to hospitals, as opposed to more than 100 last year.
"Goldenvoice really stepped up this year," Talbot continued. "Looking at statistics from last year, they realized they needed to do more and they did it. We did not force them to do more. They did it on their own."
Goldenvoice's leader Paul Tollett is prepping for two more music fests in Indio -- this weekend's metal-focused The Big 4 Festival and the following weekend's country-driven Stagecoach -- and while emails were exchanged, Pop & Hiss was unable to connect with him. A spokeswoman for Goldenvoice had earlier said they were unaware of the Ferris wheel incident. Efforts to speak with the Ferris wheel operators at Coachella were met with a stiff "no comment."
But if one is looking for evidence that Coachella attendees are what a police spokesman describes as "really goodhearted people," one need not look further than Flanders.
"I took a picture of her for myself," he said. "I just had to remember this -- what she looked like, and how she was. I wasn’t trying to be disrespectful. This was all so intense. It was really intense trying not to talk about it all weekend. I kept hearing rumors, and I would be thinking, ‘That was me.’
"But," he continued, "I really do want to know that she is OK."
-- Todd Martens
Images, from top: The Coachella Ferris wheel (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times); Coachella at dusk (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times); The Ferris wheel at dusk (Sinco / Los Angeles Times).