April 1, 1991. Hundreds descend onto Plainview, Nebraska for a musical show that would rival Woodstock. Indie acts like Moxy Fruvous, Sonic Youth, and Dinosaur jr. would take the stage alongside classic favorites The Misfits and Neil Young. The venue was a hog farm 20 miles from the center of town. Rather than a stage, the performance area was marked out on bare ground. People trampled over fields and cut across fences to swarm the stage.
The projected start of the concert was high noon. At two o’clock, the crowd became restless. A nervous young roadie came to the microphone set up in the middle of the field to reassure the crowd that the first act had hit traffic and would be a while longer. Three pm came and went. Beach balls were passed around atop the concert-goers heads. What scarce shade existed became monopolized. The young man took the microphone a third and fourth time to reassure the crowd that the first act was not long for the wait. Four o’clock came.
…and nothing happened.
The Plainview fiasco was the brainchild of Brett “Boomer” Howard and Todd Bauer, the DJ’s behind Lincoln’s“Boomer and Bauer Flower Power Hour.” Despondent over the state of current music, the DJs began a running joke of what the worst concert ever would be. The acts were comprised of everything they hated in modern music, peppered with the sacred cows of yesteryear. The venue would be worse than Woodstock. No food or water vendors. No public bathrooms. No law enforcement. And, most importantly, no musical acts.
Despite several police investigations, authorities were never able to determine who lit the first flare. As five o’clock ticked on, the bored crowd became restless. The backstage area, which was basically a series of sheets hung on a frame, showed no sign of movement. There were grumblings in the crowd about setting fire to the sheets, to hurry out the musicians. Someone produced flares from an automobile emergency kit and lit one.
An important thing to remember about farming any kind of livestock is that it produces vast amounts of waste product that is difficult to dispose of sanitarily. As was common at the time, hog waste on the farm was stored in a “lagoon,” a plastic-lined structure over two stories tall that could hold thousands of gallons of waste.
An important thing to remember about storing pig waste is that it tends to produce pockets of highly flammable methane.
The first flare was tossed onto the stage. A roadie(really one of the crew members of the Boomer and Bauer show) hastily retrieved it before it could set the sheets on fire. As a more senior member of staff took stage to appease the crowd, a second flare whizzed over his head. The crowd began rioting in earnest. Those who brought chairs threw them, those who had lighters lit them. And somewhere during the melee a third lit flare made its way into the lagoon.
The resulting explosion deafened anyone within a 20-meter range. The explosion did not kill anybody. However, it did set the waste on fire. And as the concert-goers rioted, gallons of burning pig offal rained down on the people below.
When discussing concerts in disaster terms, Altamont, Woodstock ‘99, and Riverport are often held up as the epitome of misfortune. However, all of these are examples of very human error. The Plainview riot stands apart for the sheer bizarre nature of its disaster.
Second- and third-degree burns along with inhalation of waste fumes comprised the bulk of the medical emergencies from the concert. The fumes from stored pig waste are so noxious that many a fallen itinerant worker has survived drowning only to be overcome by the mixture of methane, ammonia, and hydrogen sulfide lingering at surface height. Strains of Bifidobacterium found in the pig waste complicated even the most mundane of injuries. Once rioting in disappointment, now the concert goers fled to escape the fiery waste raining down on them.
Perhaps the biggest key players in the fiasco, Boomer and Bauer, were in scarce supply that day. The crew confirmed their presence backstage, giggling at every new disappointment. Bauer had been drafting a new announcement that the bathrooms were indefinitely closed when the explosion occurred. The security staff attempted to get them to safety, only to lose them in the melee. Whether they were recognized as the authors of all the misfortune or just unfortunate victims of circumstance, we can say definitively that the radio show hosts were present for at least the first half of the riot. A crew member-cum-roadie recalls seeing Boomer swallowed up by the mass of panicking people. As the waste silo burned, the spell broke and the attendees scattered, trampling the farm in all directions in a bid for freedom. A few found the road and sought medical attention. Some found the feeder pond and attempted to wash off the fecal matter, leading the EPA to condemn the water as undrinkable. A third faction ran deeper into the farm, towards the facilities.
Numerous theories, of course, abound concerning the whereabouts of Brett Howard and Todd Bauer. Most revolve around their wish not to be sued for the prank. Stripping off their clothes and fleeing with the concert-goers may have been a logical choice. And, in the panicked dark, they might have broken contact with each other and gotten lost.
What were they thinking, stranded amidst the chaos they had caused? Were they still laughing? Or were they silent with the fear that they might be recognized? When they could not locate the radio station’s vehicles in the dark, did they flee sensibly to the road? Or were they packed into the throng headed to the farm’s interior?
The facts as they stand: the crowd that blundered further into the farm split into two crowds. One followed the retaining fence and found the barn where 234 fully grown American Yorkshire pigs slept. The other went away, to another waste silo. There was a mass of trampled footprints on the ground around one, and a single, muddy step on the maintenance ladder. That’s all.
The town of Plainview has tried its best to forget the concert. The emergence of Woodstock ‘94 three years later helped bury the unflattering memory. Swinton’s hog farm, where the concert almost took place, has since been zoned for residential housing. And Brett Howard and Todd Bauer have not been seen in public since that night.