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Lighting Crashes at Tibetan Freedom Fest

A severe thunderstorm, fan injuries mar the third annual Tibetan Freedom Concert

June 15, 1998 12:00 AM ET

Soliciting compassion and creating awareness for an arcane cause benefiting people in a distant land becomes that much harder when something grievous hits home. China's brutal oppression and murder of more than a million Tibetans over a fifty-year period registers at the top of the morbidity scale, but when a young woman gets struck by lightning in the middle of an open-air concert in front of more than 60,000 witnesses, rubbernecking will tip the scale every time.

"Any sort of self-obsession kind of went out the window, because there was a girl laying in the hospital with blood coming out of her mouth," said Red Hot Chili Peppers frontman Anthony Kiedis, referring to Lysa S. Selfon, 25, who was struck by lightning Saturday afternoon during a severe thunderstorm at Washington, D.C.'s RFK Stadium at the third annual Tibetan Freedom Concert (Selfon's condition has been upgraded to fair and she is no longer reliant on a ventilator). Her injury, along with several minor ones also caused by lightning and the dangerous weather conditions, put a premature end to day one of the event, staged to help end China's occupation of Tibet. As word of the injuries quickly spread throughout the stadium, rumors ran the gamut from several men getting struck by lightning to a girl being hit with an explosive device. "When we were on the train [coming here], we'd heard that two people had died from lightning and then we got there and people had spun it," said Pulp guitarist Mark Webber. "It's just a shame ... bad karma."

Consequently, ticket holders for the first day didn't see scheduled performances by Tracy Chapman, Sonic Youth, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, R.E.M., Beck, Radiohead or Patti Smith, who was stuck in New York, where equally dangerous weather conditions closed LaGuardia airport.

Outside, fans were livid and many quite callous. "I feel sorry [for the girl struck by lightning], but if they wanna come to a concert and stay out in the rain, that's gonna happen," said Erin, 18, who drove down from New York to attend the show. "It could have happened to me. I wouldn't care."

Another concert goer, Andy, 26, from New Haven, Conn., seemed more concerned about his tall boys getting warm than the status of the lightning victim. "We're getting Jewed out of the rest of the show," he said, apparently unaware that this was a day of tolerance.

Meanwhile, R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe was being ushered from the tunnel under the stadium. Flanked by his manager and surrounded by paparazzi, he walked to an unrestricted area at Gate C, where he was mobbed by adoring fans. There, the equally-popular Blues Traveler frontman John Popper signed autographs, posed for pictures and refrained from eating.

Unaware of the injuries inside the stadium, hip-hop scholar KRS-One playfully boasted that he got in his set before the rains came. "When I got here, the sun came out," he said. "And then when I got off stage, the sun left. I know I'm guided by God -- or maybe the Goddess. Somebody's looking out for the whole event."

Live, another band that got in under the weather, unknowingly provided the precursor to the day's catastrophe, when they performed "Lightning Crashes." "I didn't [know that there was] spiritual significance to 'Lightning Crashes,'" said Live guitarist Chad Taylor after the set, as the dark n' nasty clouds began to roll in. "I just want everyone to know that Live brought out the sunshine."

Fortunately for day two tickets holders, the Milarepa Fund, the charityorganization that sponsored the event got Sonic Youth, Radiohead and surpriseshow-closers the Chili Peppers to return and make Sunday live up to its hype.By then, the message of the festival was clear as the skies. From the stage,Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke summarized, "This is more like it. This is agood day."

Whether or not the majority of attendees understood the event's message or even cared was of constant debate both on stage, backstage and in the crowd. "I think people would have to be fairly swished off not to go away [from the event] with a message from this weekend," said Radiohead drummer Phil Selway. "I think you'd have to go around and ask."

Rachel, 18, from Newport, R.I., didn't have an answer, pressuring her friend to be her mouthpiece. "Ask her," Rachel said. "She's into this shit a lot."

"The Chinese are controlling [the Tibetans], and they can't practice their own religion," her friend said. "They're not allowed to do, like, anything free."

Later, Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder put his own derisively ambivalent spin on the benefit concert. "I don't give a fuck," he said from the stage. "We have all your money."

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