From John Reed’s Tales of Woe, (MTV PRESS, August 2010)
City Council Leader Warren Bradley: “Brouhaha is one of Liverpool’s most colorful, vibrant, and diverse cultural celebrations. To see so many people from so many communities getting involved in activities from dance to costume-making, and from music to carnival parades, really captures what Capital of Culture is all about—creativity, inclusion and participation.”
Two hundred artists from 20 different countries: to entertain, educate, and edify.
In the midst of festival fever Maurice Agis, acclaimed artist, opened his “Dreamspace V” at the Metropolitan Cathedral. The work, consisting of 157 interconnected ovoid cells constructed from colorful PVC sheeting, invited guests to an experience that was described by the artist as “surreal, magic, like swimming in a sea of changing colors.”
On opening day, a band of young thugs slashed the “Bouncy Castle,” leaving it in a deflated heap. But dreams do come true, and not a week later, the 16-foot high installation was repaired and reopened, and the trite act of vandalism was lost to the mellifluous music and mutable colors of “Dreamspace V.”
Mr. Agis, on his work: “My art, my dialogue, my communication is part of an urban art culture, part of the urban environment. It’s about finding a way into the social fabric of everyday life so as to breathe and blossom.”
Since the first Dreamspace opened in Copenhagen in 1996, more than 250,000 visitors, across Europe, had wandered in the PVC cells.
“Dreamspace V” was the culmination of a lifetime’s work, set for a 10-year anniversary tour of Dreamspace. The interactive sculpture was the largest yet, with a 165 by 165 foot base. In layman’s terms: it was about the size of half a football field.
One visitor: “It’s very womb-like and trippy. It’s dreamy, a really nice vibe.” Mr. Agis saw the origins of the work in Constructivist and De Stijl Schools of abstraction, but welcomed playground analogies.
Upon entry, visitors removed their shoes and donned a colored plastic cape, becoming “part of the artwork.” New Age music by composer Stephen Montague, accompanied the adventurers. A wheelchair access facilitated those with disabilities.
An unidentified man described his experience inside the structure on the second day the installation was open to the public at Riverside Park, County Durham: “My wife was coming towards me and was laughing and thinking, ‘This is all part of it.’ That’s when I hit the floor and realized, ‘This isn’t right.’”
“All of a sudden it just started rising like a balloon,” said eyewitness Mark Spooner, “flinging people all over—then it just seemed to flip over in the air.”
Richard Gordon, another eyewitness, age 22: “I was standing next to it when I heard a ‘snap’ sound as the holding pegs were ripped out of the ground.”
Approximately 40 park goers, on line to enter Dreamspace V, attempted to stabilize the rope and peg system that anchored the inflatable structure. Among them was Mr. Agis, 74.
Mr. Agis’s girlfriend, Paloma Brotons, was by his side: “I saw him flying with it and I thought he was going to be killed. There was a team of us that helped to tie the structure to the ground. We even used more ropes because it was hot.”
“It was going with such force it just dragged us along and we couldn’t stop it,” said Mr. Gordon, who estimated that three industrial blowers were in use when the structure “took off,” and that a gust of wind “got under” the sculpture: “I could hear people inside screaming as it flipped on its side, went into the air and started gaining speed.”
“The whole thing took about a minute,” said Mr. Gordon. “It was awful to see.”
Claire Fairnington, also 22, was another eyewitness: “The screams continued for about another 15 minutes after it landed.”
John Tubbrit was picnicking with his wife Raj and their 3-year-old daughter, Nicole: “The back of the sculpture came up pretty slowly at first and then it was vertical.” Raj grabbed the child but ran in the wrong direction.
“By the time I got to her,” said Tubbrit, “the thing was on my back. Thankfully there was a light breeze which lifted it off us and at that point there was absolute bedlam.”
Chris Gillott, 20, was selling duck food to park goers when patrons began pointing out the window: “The Dreamspace was right outside the cafe and I saw the corner closest to the window lift off the floor and then the whole thing go straight up into the air.”
Mobile phone cameras and security cameras captured the event: Dreamspace drifted, airborne, 100 to 150 feet.
“Everyone was running away—then it flipped right over and went upside down, bending in on itself and landed on loads of people who were trying to get away,” said Mr. Gillott. “Some people looked really badly hurt. When it was about 30 feet up, I saw a woman fall out of one corner. She landed on the concrete path and bounced onto the grass. She was not moving after that.”
Mr. Gillott and his customers hurried to the deflating heap: “They were cutting it up somehow, slicing into it and dragging people out from inside and underneath it.”
Three year old Rosie Wright and her brother Jack, 6, were visiting “Dreamland V” with their mother, Penny, at the time of the incident. Penny called her ex-husband, Lee Wright, to inform him of the circumstances.
Mr. Wright: “I went straight down there and it was like a disaster zone.” Despite protestations that “my son and daughter are in there,” Mr. Wright was unable to access the park, which had been sealed off by that time. “I got out of the car and just ran into the park. Eventually I found them.”
Rosie had fallen out of an access cell of “Dreamspace V”; subsequently, the metal fan of one of the hot air generators fell on top of her. Her injuries were severe. Her spine and pelvis were fractured. Bones had been broken in her lower leg and upper thigh. She had sustained head injuries—bruising to the brain—a punctured lung and a lacerated liver. Other injuries included multiple fractures to the ankle and ribs, a bruised elbow, and four stitches to the forehead.
Because of their ages, Rosie and Jack had been waived the entrance fee to Dreamspace.
Jack and his mother Penny were uninjured; Rosie recovered. Four other children required hospitalization. In all, 13 people were injured.
Deborah Anne Simpson: “The scenes I saw today were horrific and I hope I never see anything like it as long as I live.”
Claire Furmedge, from nearby Whitehills, County Durham, had brought her two daughters to Dreamspace V. Jessica, 8, and Emily, 6, were inside the structure throughout the ordeal, and were held overnight at the University Hospital of North Durham. Mrs. Furmedge, who fell from the soaring sculpture, did not survive.
Elizabeth Collings, from Dalton Heights, County Durham, accompanied her 14-year-old grandson, Craig, on a walk-through of Dreamspace. Craig witnessed his grandmother’s death, which was also witnessed by her husband, Bill, and her daughter, Susan.
Susan: “She was a loving, caring mother and grandmother who was always there when you needed her.”
Mrs. Collings was 68, Mrs. Furmedge, 38.
Two air ambulances, a police helicopter, six ground ambulances, two rapid response paramedic vehicles, four patient transport vehicles and five fire crews arrived at the scene.
As the crowd hewed at the PVC with keys or anything they could find, rescue workers joined in the search for individuals missing inside Dreamspace.
Darlington and Durham Fire and Rescue spokesman, John Robson: “There were parents looking for children, children looking for parents. We had to extricate a number of people from the structure. A number of people had fallen on top of each other.”
By sunset, “Dreamspace V” had been reduced to scraps of colored PVC, which festooned the public park. Cleared of casualties and the general public, the site was cordoned off; inspectors from the Health and Safety Executive launched their investigation.
Spokesman Robson: “The structure somehow went up vertically into the air then went 40 or 50 yards toward a children’s playground next to the River Wear.”
Linda Ebbatsib, leader of Chester-le-Street district council, made a tearful statement: “We were satisfied it was safe. We had done what needed to be done.”
The artist, Mr. Agis, was interviewed at Chester-le-Street police station.
Accident investigators called on the expertise of an engineer to evaluate the structural integrity of the sculpture. Police secured remains of Dreamspace—PVC, ropes, and anchor pins.
Chief Superintendent Trevor Watson, of Durham Police: “We haven’t received reports that is was particularly windy at the time of the incident.” Police would not speculate on causes of the tragedy, but were keeping a “very open mind.” Sabotage could not be ruled out.
“It didn’t seem to be windy,” said Paloma Brotons (Mr. Agis’s girlfriend), “Maurice used more ropes than usual to hold it down because he said it was hot.”
Maurice, she said, had lost the will to continue his work: “Maurice is devastated, we all are. He’s spent all his life working for the happiness of people—and now two people are dead.”
In 1988, “Clause 28,” a previous inflatable sculpture by Mr. Agis, jumped its tethers and lifted off during the Glasgow Garden Festival. Steadfast, Mr. Agis had refused to release the guide ropes, when the high winds whipped him 30 feet in the air.
Accompanied by her mother, Keeley, 7-year-old Chloe Wilson returned to the park to lay flowers where Elizabeth Collings lost her life.
“I saw a lady clinging on and then falling out and she was lying on the ground with people around her,” said Chloe, who had watched as the sculpture deflated on those still trapped inside.
Emergency Services initiated a trauma hotline.
Tricia Montague, the 51-year-old wife of Stephen Montague, who composed the music for “Dreamspace V,” said: “This is Maurice’s life’s work. He has been doing Dreamspace and Colourspace before it for over 17 years. I desperately feel for him. He needs our support.”
Her husband was “speechless” when she delivered the news.
“In the past, there have been several instances of vandalism on Maurice’s structures but every time he just gets up and gets on with it. But this is different,” said Mrs. Montague. “He designed Dreamspace and he puts it together with his own bare hands. Every part of him is involved in creating this thing. He must really be suffering.”
Mrs. Montague, herself a fiddler, had played live music inside the Dreamspace, four years before: “It’s just so sad how something of such beauty, something so special can cause injury and death in this way. You just can’t bring those two things together.”
Mr. Agis was arrested and later charged with gross negligence manslaughter.
In a February 2009 trial, the jury failed to reach a verdict on the manslaughter count. Mr. Agis was found guilty of breaching health and safety rules. A fine of £10,000 was reduced to £2,500 on appeal. The families of the victims protested the meager sanction, and the markdown.
Mr. Agis: “There was absolutely no wind that day. I never, never have it up when it is windy. It’s just one of the things I decided 10 years ago, when we started, that wind, any wind, was unacceptable.”
Polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, is a widely used petroleum product (40% petoleum, 60% chlorine), which, during the course of its consumer cycle, releases mercury, phthalates, dioxins, and numerous other toxins.
Mike Schade, of the Center for Health Environment and Justice: “PVC is the most toxic plastic for our health and environment. There is no safe way to manufacture, use, or dispose of vinyl plastics.”
Mike Schade, on Dreamspace: “There is a very good chance that the vinyl was off-gassing volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—these are chemicals that we find in all kinds of things, such as paint or products that have a strong plastic smell. You know that new shower curtain smell? That’s the smell of VOCs off-gassing from a PVC product. We conducted a study about a year ago with new shower curtains, which have no safety standards. What we found was quite startling.”
108 different volatile organic compounds were released from the shower curtain into the air over the course of the study.
Toluene, cyclohexanone, methyl isobutyl ketone (MIBK), phenol, and ethylbenzene were detected in the greatest concentrations during the 28-day period. The USEPA also found all of these substances except cyclohexanone in a study of chemicals off-gassing from PVC shower curtains.
Forty different VOCs were detected in the chamber after seven days; 16 VOCs were detected after 14 days; 11 after 21 days; and four after 28 days.
The level of Total VOCs measured was over 16 times greater than the recommended guidelines for indoor air quality established by the U.S. Green Building Council and Washington State Indoor Air Quality Program.
Seven of the chemicals released by the shower curtain are classified as hazardous air pollutants by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Clean Air Act.
Two of the chemicals detected, toluene and ethylbenzene, are on California’s Proposition 65 list. This law prohibits companies doing business in California from exposing individuals to chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive toxicity without first giving clear and reasonable warning, and from discharging such chemicals into drinking water.
VOCs can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches, loss of coordination, nausea, and damage to the liver, kidney, and the central nervous system. Some VOCs can cause cancer in animals; some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans.
Mr. Agis died on October 12, 2009, of causes undisclosed.
“I was sitting there looking around and it was a lovely day, a beautiful day,” commented Mr. Agis, hard upon the Dreamspace tragedy. “Everybody was happy. I was looking at the people under a tree picnicking.”
John Reed's novels include A Still Small Voice (Delacorte 2000) and Snowball's Chance, which will be published by Roof Books this September. He lives in Manhattan.