In the early hours of August 5, medical workers at the Panadura Base Hospital were struggling to stabilize the condition of three grievously ill men who had been rushed in by friends and family. There were four patients in total. The High Dependency Unit (HDU) staff said the man who came first, between 3.15-and 3.30 [...]


A party that went horribly wrong


In the early hours of August 5, medical workers at the Panadura Base Hospital were struggling to stabilize the condition of three grievously ill men who had been rushed in by friends and family.

The hall in question with the bare concrete walls, where the party took place. Pix by Amila Gamage

There were four patients in total. The High Dependency Unit (HDU) staff said the man who came first, between 3.15-and 3.30 a.m, was pronounced dead on admission. Two other males were brought in between 4 and 4.30 a.m.

“The symptoms of the second and third patients were unusual and differed from someone who had suffered a drug overdose,” HDU workers said, requesting anonymity. They had body temperatures of 41 degrees Centigrade, or 105 Fahrenheit, and were trembling as if they were experiencing fits. They drew rasping breaths and were foaming slightly at the mouth. Both were unresponsive and unconscious.

“The two patients later showed symptoms of lack of oxygen intake while breathing and had uncontrolled diarrhea,” the workers said. The symptoms worsened and they were sent to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) where they later died (one of them on the following day).

A fourth man was admitted around 5.30a.m. “He was unconscious and his only response was dilation of the eye when exposed to light,” they said. “We tried to reduce his body temperature by applying ice as we did with two other patients.” He, too, passed away.

Eranga Ruwa Perera from Kesbewa was 37-years-old. Lihinikaduwa Arachchige Don Melan Shyamika from Divulapitiya was 20. Manoj Wijesekera from Hokandara was 28. The age of Viduranga Dilshan from Morontuduwa is not known.

The Judicial Medical Officer at Panadura Hospital Dr Uthpala Attygalle delivered an open verdict. Samples of the deceased–blood, urine and tissue samples–were forwarded to Senior Government Analyst S Ratnayake. Cause of death is dependent on the toxicology report which is yet to come.

The post-mortems showed no abnormalities. The victims had ailments commensurate with their age and health. There was dust and high temperature in the building hired for the event. Without the chemical analysis, nothing could be said about the cause of death, Dr Attygalle said.

The men had attended a party organised via Facebook. Tickets were sold online and via a telecom service provider. A foreign artiste named Guy J, who is a DJ and music producer, was to attend.

Wadduwa police have arrested the main organizers, Amila Pushpakumara and Harshan Eranda Dantanarayana. They are charged under Section 327 of the Penal Code related to acting “so rashly or negligently as to endanger human life or the personal safety of others”.

Grieving for one of the victims

They are also charged under Sections 36 and 37 of the Tobacco and Alcohol Act. The first deals with prohibitions of sponsorships under brand name or trademark of any tobacco product or alcohol product in connection with certain events. The second prohibits free distribution of tobacco or alcohol products.

The suspects were produced before Panadura Additional Magistrate Kalhari Liyanage and remanded till August 17. The event organizers had in June obtained permission for use of sound equipment at the event, said Lalitha Weerasinghe, Officer-in-Charge of Wadduwa police told the Sunday Times. The request was submitted by the Hotel Manager of Saffron Wadduwa. Sounds were provided by Chandana Samaraweera, a Kiribathgoda resident.

Permission was granted for a night musical event and use of sounds between 3 p.m. on August 4 and 1a.m. on August 5. But the party did not stop at 1 a.m. and continued even past 3a.m. It only stopped after people got sick, OIC Weerasinghe said. The hall in which the event took place was in an unfinished building, he said, and was 118 feet long and 96 feet wide. This was just 11,328 square feet and not adequate for a crowd of 1,800 (an average of about five square feet of space per person).

After the incident, the building was searched with sniffer dogs while the Magistrate, JMO and Government Analyst were on site before the post-mortem. The Magistrate has requested a report from the police by August 21.

Police found lollipopwrappers, energy drink cans and branded liquor bottles in the hall. Those who had bought tickets for Rs 5,000 were provided rum by the organizers. Investigators also had a receipt for Rs 244,277 issued in June by the private security firm Avant Garde to Heaven’s Gate (Pvt) Ltd for services on the date of the party.

Heaven’s Gate hired the hall, which is under construction, for Rs 400,000, a Saffron Wadduwa employee said. While the floor was completed, the walls still needed wooden panelling.

The hall is designed to support a crowd of 1,500 people, more than 1,800 turned up. They had to ask organizers to close the ticket counter to stop further congestion.

Wadduwa OIC Lalitha Weerasinghe

This employee complained that the hotel was getting hit in the media due to speculation over the condition of the hall. They provided industrial fans, 12 moveable air-conditioning towers and even opened the doors when the crowd complained of the heat. He denied that people fell ill due to dust being raised while dancing.
Participants were given wristbands based on the type of ticket purchased and were led into the hall after a pat-down. External equipment was banned. Even an ambulance had been hired from a private hospital and was parked in front of the hotel. The event planners had made arrangements for emergencies.

Refreshments were given by the organizers and sponsors. The hotel only kept the washrooms clean to cater to the crowd. The lighting, sets, stage and everything was installed by Heaven’s Gate.

When the Sunday Times visited the hall this week, there was a hot air breeze and smell of cement. There were chewing gums stuck to the floor. The employee said there was a large quantity of cigarette butts strewn around after the party.

The event dragged on past 3am when a few people fell unconscious. The 20-year-old was taken to hospital first. The other three followed. The party stopped then and police arrived around 5a.m. They were given the CCTV footage.

The families of the victims declined to comment this week. Viduranga Dilshan’s father said he was still grieving for his son. The brother of Shyamika blamed the media for misreporting and refused to speak. He confirmed that Eranga Ruwan was a newlywed and not a father-of-two as reported in the media.

Thirty-five guards, including two women, were deployed at the entrance and the stairway, said Avant Garde Managing Director Manjula Yapa. The firm provided security throughout the event and checked every person that entered. They were tasked with checking partygoers entering the hall with bottles of water, weapons, knives and liquor.

“Our officers were deployed to avoid situations that can harm the safety of the participants and prevent brawls between groups,” he said. “People entering the hall had to go through a pat-down. They could not take liquor as that was provided in the Rs 5,000 tickets. But cigarettes and toffees are allowed. We do not have police powers to strip-search for drugs.”

People had come in and out of the building owing to the heat and dust. Each time they re-entered, they were searched. Mr Yapa denied they were hired by an influential minister and that Heaven’s Gate had enlisted them. “We checked their records, sponsors and background before agreeing to provide security,” he said.

Heaven’s Gate declined to comment.

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