Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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You wouldn’t have known it was close to freezing looking at the exterior of the cavernous, warehouse-like concert venue Echostage on a recent Friday night. For every person bundled in a winter coat, someone else wore no jacket at all. Men in tank tops emblazoned with the logo of the electronic duo performing that night, Above & Beyond, wrapped their arms around glitter-faced women in fishnet stockings and booty shorts.

The show was sold out, and the line snaked down Queens Chapel Road in Northeast D.C. as thousands of people funneled into the venue. The line moved quickly and the underdressed concertgoers put up with their short-term shivering because they knew that once inside, the packed, body-to-body crowd would provide more than enough warmth. For the next four hours, until the club closed at around 3:30 a.m., they would be the comfortable ones. Even on this wintry night, some men, once inside, shed their shirts completely.

Echostage, the largest electronic music venue in the region at 30,000 square feet, has become the de-facto home of PLUR, an abbreviation for “Peace, Love, Unity, Respect,” the tenets the electronic dance music community purports to uphold. 

A few months after Echostage’s opening, Washington Post music critic Chris Richards wrote that he saw it as a signal of the rise of EDM, or electronic dance music. “For any type of live music to thrive, you need artists to push envelopes, promoters to give them a solid platform and fans to stay engaged,” he wrote in December 2012. “Echostage faithful seem to be experiencing just that, pledging their loyalty to the venue, the acts and especially to each other.”

But since its opening, Echostage has come under fire for safety issues, including the deaths of three concertgoers between 2013 and 2015. And 911 records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request reveal that there were 190 unique incidents requiring an EMS dispatch to Echostage between January 17, 2015, and January 12, 2018. (D.C. retains 911 data for three years.) 62 of these were in 2015, 56 in 2016, and 71 in 2017.

As the popularity of electronic music booms, advocates are working to ensure that venues like Echostage are as safe as possible for concertgoers—specifically those who are using drugs—by encouraging venue owners to create cool-down spaces and to provide concertgoers with free water. One of those advocates, Dede Goldsmith, experienced Echostage’s safety issues acutely. Her daughter, Shelley, died after attending a concert there in 2013. 

Drug use was common in the electronic music scene when rave culture first blossomed in the ’80s and ’90s, and it still is today—specifically 3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine (MDMA), the main ingredient in ecstasy. The purified form of MDMA is called Molly, and it produces “feelings of well-being, stimulation, and distortions in time and sensory perceptions,” according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

A recent study published in the journal Substance Use and Misuse found that 42.8 percent of young people between the ages of 18 and 25 entering EDM events in New York City in 2015 reported taking the drug in their lifetimes.

Just last month, WJLA reported that a man abducted a female concertgoer during Echostage’s New Year’s Eve celebration. The woman told police that she blacked out at the club and woke up to the man raping her. He was charged with second-degree rape and second-degree assault and is due to appear in Montgomery County District Court on Feb. 23.

In 2015, D.C.’s then Assistant Chief and current Chief of Police Peter Newsham requested a hearing about Echostage before D.C.’s Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board. His request came in response to events at a concert by electronic DJ duo W&W. D.C. police generated six reports, “four being sick persons to the hospital, one being an arrest for a simple assault, and one being an arrest for possession of drugs.” All four people who were taken to the hospital reported to police that they had taken Molly.

At the ABC hearing, Ward 7 Board Member James Short said, “Now, I know a little something about public safety in this town, and I know a little something about nightlife in Washington, D.C. Our D.C. stadium, Kennedy Center, Convention Center—none of them have this kind of drain on our resources.” 

Two years earlier, on August 31, 2013, an emergency call came from Echostage as the electronic music duo Dada Life performed to a packed crowd. A blog post summarizing the show on the website of Club Glow, which produces EDM events and is owned and operated by the same individuals as Echostage, Antonis Karagounis and Pete Kalamoutsos, called the night “bananas.”

“People were decked out in banana suits and the bass was in full effect. The Swedish duo taught Echostage the Rules of Dada with a night of champagne, bananas, electro, and pillows,” reads the post. “It’s safe to say we partook in the biggest pillow fight in the District. Halfway through ‘Happy Violence,’ giant stuffed pillows were thrown into the crowd. When the beat dropped, joyful chaos ensued.”

A photo at the end the post shows a handful of staff inside the mostly empty Echostage, standing atop a room littered with pillow stuffing. The photo is captioned “The Aftermath.”

There’s no mention of another, more tragic aftermath of that show: the death of 19-year-old Mary “Shelley” Goldsmith.

***

Dede and Shelley Goldsmith Credit: Courtesy of the Goldsmith family

“Who’s Molly? Where did she take her?”

Those were the words Dede Goldsmith spoke when her daughter’s friend told her over the phone that Shelley had taken Molly.

“I got a call from a friend of hers, and he said, ‘I’m really, really sorry,’ and I said, ‘What? What are you talking about?’ And he said ‘Shelley’s in an ambulance,’” Goldsmith says. “He kept saying, ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.’ And then he said Shelley had taken Molly.”

Goldsmith and her husband, who live in Abingdon, Virginia, in the southwest part of the state, had been on a trip for her son’s birthday and were sleeping in a hotel in Kentucky when they received the call.

“Nobody was able to fly us out, they were all socked in with fog,” she recalls. “So we did the worst journey of my life, the nine-and-a-half hours to drive to D.C. to see her.”

When the couple arrived at the hospital, Shelley’s organs had already failed.

“I never got to say goodbye,” Goldsmith says now. “We were there and looking for some indication … a hand squeeze, a tear. There was nothing, she wasn’t there.”

Shelley was starting her second year at the University of Virginia in its competitive Jefferson Scholars program when she traveled on a party bus with a group of friends from Charlottesville to D.C. for the concert. Before leaving, she checked off in her planner the things she needed to get done before she left. Shopping, check. Laundry, check. Homework, check.

Goldsmith described her daughter as “a mother’s dream.”

“She was born on nine-eleven, which is always a tragic reminder to me,” Goldsmith says. “Because the irony is, her last words were ‘Call 911.’”

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Nobody from Echostage ever reached out to the Goldsmith family privately following Shelley’s death, but the management did release a public statement: “We are saddened to hear about Mary Shelley Goldsmith’s death. We have no further comment as it is our understanding that this is part of an active investigation. We will cooperate with the appropriate authorities.”

Through their public relations firm, MoKi Media, the ownership and management of Echostage declined to comment for this article. In direct reference to Shelley Goldsmith’s death, Roderic Woodson, partner at Holland & Knight and counsel to Echostage, told the ABC board in December 2015 that “the death did not occur in Echostage. There was no way that death could have been prevented by Echostage, itself.”

In the week after Shelley passed away, police told The Washington Post that a single bad batch of MDMA may have been responsible for Shelley’s death and three other Molly-related fatalities in Boston and New York in the same week. The Goldsmiths also assumed that tainted drugs must have been to blame.

The toxicology report they received three months later told a different story. Besides phenytoin and midazolam, two anti-seizure drugs that were used to try to resuscitate her, tests on Shelley’s blood found nothing in her system besides pure MDMA.

Text messages between Shelley and her friends ahead of the concert suggest that she didn’t overdose in the traditional sense, or take too much of the drug. The texts indicate that Shelley wanted 0.2 grams of MDMA for the concert, an amount that is commonly considered a standard, recreational dose.

That’s when Goldsmith came to ask: “If it wasn’t the drug that caused her to die, then what was it?”

***

Shelley Goldsmith’s was the first publicly reported death to have occurred after a medical emergency at Echostage, but in the coming years, at least two more would take place. 22-year-old Cody Tjaden died in January 2015 after falling over a second floor balcony, and Victoria Callahan was celebrating her 19th birthday at Echostage in June 2015 when she collapsed, was taken to the hospital, and pronounced dead at MedStar Washington Hospital Center.

Since June 2015, there have been no public reports of deaths following incidents at Echostage, although that doesn’t guarantee that none have happened. Regulations related to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) preclude the public release of medical information, which can include deaths. 

Shelley’s parents chose to publicly share that she had taken Molly prior to her death in order to warn other young people who plan to do the same.

While Victoria Callahan and Shelley Goldsmith both died within a day of being transported to the hospital, some fatalities can happen up to 72 hours later. A Molly-related medical emergency can also lead to permanent medical effects besides death that would similarly be privately held information.

“Where we sometimes see other outcomes is when people come in and they’re resuscitated, but they’ve already had damage to their brain, so they may have long-term cognitive disability or they might progressively deteriorate over the next 24 or 48 hours,” says Dr. Lewis Nelson, chief of service in the emergency department at University Hospital in Newark, New Jersey. “The damage to their muscles, the damage to their liver, the damage to their kidneys, the damage to their brain—it all continues to develop over the next days.”

Doctors told the Goldsmiths that Shelley had a temperature of 103.5 degrees when she arrived at the hospital. That elevated temperature, known as hyperthermia, is typical of MDMA-related medical emergencies. MDMA, like antidepressant drugs, causes a greater release of the neurotransmitter serotonin. The flood of the neurotransmitter in the brain can lead to a dangerous condition known as serotonin syndrome, which in turn causes hyperthermia.

Fatal hyperthermic reactions become much more likely in hot, crowded environments like nightclubs. A study conducted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, done on rats, revealed that a moderate dose of MDMA that is typically safe in cool, quiet environments became lethal when the animals were exposed to hot, crowded conditions.

The association between ambient environment and MDMA fatalities is why harm reduction organizations advocate that music venues put in place measures to keep their environments—and thus their patrons—safe. Harm reduction refers to actions and strategies aimed at mitigating the negative consequences drug users may encounter.

“Calling it an overdose makes people think this was a drug abuser pushing their limits, and it lets everyone off the hook,” says Emanuel Sferios, the founder of DanceSafe, an organization that promotes health and safety within the electronic music community. “Everyone immediately goes to blaming the victim, because there’s this stereotype where we think if someone dies of drugs, it must be their fault. These are accidents where the fault lies to all of us because we are not regulating the environments in which people are using.”

Following Shelley Goldsmith’s death, harm reduction advocates Stefanie Jones of the Drug Policy Alliance and Missi Wooldridge, who now runs consulting company Healthy Nightlife, LLC, attended a concert at Echostage to evaluate the safety of the venue.

“I would rate it a 3 out of 10,” Wooldridge says of her 2014 visit during a Skrillex concert. “It was so crowded that it was nearly impossible to move through the crowd, which posed a magnitude of issues when trying to get help or get medical personnel to someone who was having a difficult experience.”

***

Many Echostage concerts, including both the Flume show Victoria Callahan attended and the Above & Beyond show this January, sell out. The number of people who pack into the building for a sold out show, though, is unclear.

Echostage’s maximum capacity is listed as 1,072, according to its 2013 Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration renewal application and business license, obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request. D.C.’s Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), which issues Certificates of Occupancy, confirmed that the venue’s current legal occupant load stands at that number. DC Construction Code requires that occupancy loads be posted so that they are readily visible to anyone entering the premises. 

At the Above & Beyond concert last month, the certificate of occupancy was not readily visible and several staff members, when asked, could not point to its location, but security and employees at the box office stated that a sold out Echostage show holds around 3,000 people—almost three times the number DCRA allows. On the website EVENTup, which business owners can use to rent out their event spaces, standing room is listed as 2,000. At the 2015 ABC hearing, Echostage’s general manager Matthew Cronin reported to the Board that the maximum occupancy is 2,000 people. Resident Advisor, an online community platform focused on electronic music, and two Post reports list Echostage’s capacity as 6,000.

“I don’t know what they’re doing to manage capacity,” says Jones about her 2014 visit to the venue. “Even if they were legally following capacity, which I have questions about for that particular night that I was there, I would reconsider because that felt very crowded.”

DCRA reports that it is up to the D.C. Office of the Fire Marshal to enforce occupancy limits. A Freedom of Information Act request for fire code infractions to D.C.’s Fire and EMS Department surfaced an infraction from January 2, 2018, that exits signs did not indicate the correct direction of travel. No infractions were related to capacity. An employee of the Fire Marshal’s office indicated over the phone that inspectors check occupancy numbers by asking door staff how many people have entered the building. That number should not exceed the capacity limit listed on the business license.

Wooldridge and Jones expressed concern about access to water for patrons at Echostage when they visited in 2014. Water bottles purchased from the bar cost $5 each, and Jones says that when she attempted to refill a water bottle she had purchased at the bar in the bathroom, she was stopped by Echostage’s security personnel. In an anonymous survey DanceSafe carried out about Echostage after Callahan’s death, many patrons reported similar experiences. One wrote that, “At the Flume show, I was almost kicked out because I tried to fill up my water bottle in the bathroom.”

The issue of access to water came up at the 2015 ABC hearing when Ward 2 Board Member Mike Silverstein questioned whether concertgoers were “at a certain time, being charged for the water that could have kept them from having some terrible thing happen to them.”

Arman Amirshahi, Karagounis’ business partner, responded that “the water situation has come up… As soon as it was mentioned, we took care of it, and it was a one day decision.”

“We now allow people to get water, no matter what. Anybody who asks for water at any time, we give them a cup of water,” he said. “They don’t have to to buy a bottle of water. We’ve added water fountains. We give out, literally, in front of the stage, hundreds of times—hundreds of cases of water to the people in the front who are not able to necessarily get water.”

Employees handed out free water bottles to audience members toward the front of the room at the January 2018 Above & Beyond show, but no security personnel were aware of the existence of the fountains Amirshani mentioned at the ABC hearing, and instead directed patrons to get the pre-poured cups of water that were kept behind the bar. Getting the attention of the bartender could take 10 minutes or more.

That isn’t sufficient, says Sferios.

“Water has to be free and freely accessible,” he says. “Giving out a few water bottles … That’s a quick fix to a situation that needs to be fixed on a systemic level.”

At the December 2015 ABC hearing, Echostage’s owners expressed confidence that they had made systemic changes to the venue since its opening to make it more safe. “We’re here to have a safe environment at our venue, and that’s the most important thing for us,” Andre de Moya, the managing partner at Echostage, told the ABC Board.

According to Amirshahi’s testimony to the Board, the venue’s original security plan had 17 cameras, but 50 were installed. He also says that the club voluntarily has a team of six to 12 officers outside whenever it is open, as well as around 45 security guards per night.

Echostage isn’t the only venue in its neighborhood, Langdon Park. The establishments Karma, Stadium Club, and Aqua Bar and Lounge together create a nightlife scene in the area. 

At an ABC Board meeting, in January 2015, a resident who lives nearby unsuccessfully protested the renewal of Echostage’s operating license. She complained about issues outside the club—traffic, litter, and disruption of peace and quiet.

Those strains on the neighborhood are part of why, in 2016, Advisory Neighborhood Commission 5C lobbied the Board to implement a moratorium on new liquor licenses in the area. The Board voted to implement a three-year moratorium on new nightclub and multipurpose facility licenses.

Kevin Mullone, the commissioner for single member district 5C02, says the problems emanate not from Echostage alone but rather the number of large-scale nightclubs in very close proximity to one another. 

“Echostage has an open-door policy. I have the management’s personal emails and phone numbers. They supported our community picnic, and they are routinely picking up trash after each and every show,” he says. “Our constituents aren’t concerned with Echostage in particular, but rather that small section of Queens Chapel Road that has a lot of establishments.”

Mullone says he’d like to see that area designated by the Metropolitan Police Department as a nightlife safe zone, as H Street NE, Adams Morgan, U Street NW, Dupont Circle, and Chinatown were when late-night Metro service was initially eliminated in 2016. The areas were given additional lighting and added patrols.

Amirshahi told the ABC Board in December 2015 that the club feels it’s gone “overboard” when it comes to safety. He said that in addition to police outside, they have trained emergency medical technicians on staff at every show in a designated first aid room.

“We understand the importance of having great security, great EMTs … I can’t prevent someone popping five pills and walking into your night club, anywhere in the city,” he said.

Stefanie Jones agrees, which is why she thinks harm reduction is so important.

“Every venue and every event in the country has a quote, un-quote ‘no tolerance drug policy,’ and it’s just impossible,” she says. “You can’t keep drugs out of a club, venue, or festival any more than you can keep drugs out of any community, or state, or even prison. So it’s kind of insane to keep asking the venue to just try harder at doing this impossible thing rather than considering other approaches.”

A December 2015 concert at Echostage Credit: Flicker/Forsaken Fotos, creative commons attribution 2.0

***

Concertgoers, for their part, continue to flood Echostage weekend after weekend. The venue was voted the top club in the United States in DJ Mag’s 2017 Top 100 Clubs poll and the number eight club in the world.

Eric Bideganeta, 24, has been to twelve Echostage concerts since 2013.

“I know a lot of people complain about overcrowding but I think that’s largely based on a show-by-show basis. And at least in my experience, even if it is packed you can still stay out of the thick of it by sticking towards the sides or rear, so it’s something I’ve always considered largely in your control,” he says. “The only true safety issues I’ve ever heard of are all related to personal substance use, which unfortunately isn’t something the venue has much control over … It’s a shame to see largely isolated issues taint their reputation.”

Beyond freely accessible water and open, cool spaces, harm reduction advocates say drug-testing kits could help prevent drug users from accidentally taking unsafe mixtures. Drug testing equipment falls under the definition of prohibited paraphernalia in DC Code, but late last year, the D.C. Council passed 90-day emergency legislation allowing their use in response to the growing number of opioid related deaths in the District, the majority of which are associated with the presence of the deadly adulterant fentanyl. The law, intended to curb fentanyl-related deaths, also permits drug testing kits for MDMA or any other type of drug.

***

Dede Goldsmith’s quest to understand what could have prevented her daughter’s death led her to a 2003 law introduced by Senator Joe Biden, the Illicit Drug Anti-Proliferation Act. An earlier version of the law was titled the Reducing Americans Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act to create the acronym RAVE, a term for electronic dance music parties; it’s still commonly referred to as the RAVE Act. It bans individuals and businesses from “knowingly opening, maintaining, managing, controlling, renting, leasing, making available for use, or profiting from any place” where drugs are sold or used.

The legislation was passed by Congress following the death of Jillian Kirkland, a 17-year-old who died after taking drugs at an electronic music concert at the State Palace Theatre in New Orleans in 1998.

Although no club owner or promoter has even been prosecuted under the RAVE Act, some point to the law as the reason they avoid providing measures like free water and cool-down spaces. Doing so would likely keep attendees safer, but may also suggest that drug use is happening at their venues.

In the years since Shelley’s death, Goldsmith has advocated against the legislation. She thinks the law may be partially to blame for her daughter’s death, and has amassed more than 17,000 signatures on her online petition, Amend The RAVE Act.

According to DanceSafe founder Sferios, amending the RAVE Act won’t immediately spur change, but it will remove an impediment toward requiring the harm reduction standards the organization he created advocates for.

“The next step is to go state by state and require these things, but how can you even require these things when you have a federal law that makes the lawyers and the insurance reps say ‘You better not do that because the feds could come after you?’” Sferios says. “The RAVE Act is written so ambiguously …That ambiguity sends a chill down the spine of lawyers.”

Pasquale Rotella, the CEO of Insomniac, a company that produces multi-day electronic music festivals across the county, responded to a question about why his festivals don’t partner with DanceSafe or other harm reduction organizations during a 2014 Ask Me Anything session on the online discussion platform Reddit.

“I’ve actually had DanceSafe at our events a while back, but when the venue, the local authorities, and the insurers are opposed to it, you won’t have that city or location as an option,” he wrote. “It’s already hard enough to find venues where I can organize events. Unfortunately some people view partnering with DanceSafe as endorsing drug use rather than keeping people safe.”

At U Street Music Hall in D.C., owner Will Eastman takes the opposite stance. He’s hosted fundraisers for DanceSafe and says he takes every step possible to keep his venue’s patrons safe.

Both of the bars at the basement-level club have coolers with cups where people can access water without waiting for a bartender. Other D.C. music venues, like 9:30 Club and Black Cat, leave pitchers of water and cups on the bar. The Anthem, a massive, 57,000 square foot music venue with a self-reported capacity of 6,000 that opened at The Wharf in October 2017, has water fountains.

Eastman says he supports harm reduction, but the freely accessible water at his venue doesn’t fall exclusively into that category.

“We are an underground dance club and music venue. It’s not about bottle service, it’s about dancing,” he says. “Us putting free water out, we’re not thinking about drugs in any way shape or form. It’s just an amenity.”

Over the past several years, Dede Goldsmith had several conversations with her state’s legislators in Congress about the RAVE Act. In September 2017, Virginia Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine sent a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions requesting that the Department of Justice clarify how it interprets the law, “in the hopes that venue owners will be able to implement measures to reduce the risk of harm to attendees.”

In a letter dated January 17, 2018, the Justice Department wrote back that “the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) shares Ms. Goldsmith’s concern that venue owners not be discouraged from providing appropriate safety measures.” It further wrote that it is considered a violation of the law to deprive “patrons of water to obscure knowledge of drug use on the premises,” or provide “exorbitantly priced water to take advantage of patrons using drugs on the premises that required refreshment.”

The response may offer the clarification to the RAVE Act that harm reduction supporters have long been hoping for, but it also opens up new questions, like how to define “exorbitantly priced water.”

Goldsmith received the letter on January 31, 2018, nearly four-and-a-half years after her daughter’s death, and several years since her advocacy began.

“It has given me a sense of purpose,” she says. “I know without a doubt that Shelley would be wanting me to carry this message forward.”

She feels that losing her daughter has made her a more effective courier of that message.

“In a way I don’t care anymore,” she says. “When you’ve lost a kid or a child, all of a sudden all of the facades, trying to be someone you’re not, they all go away. There’s nothing left. You are who you are, you’re going to take on the challenges that are there, and frankly it makes me a much more powerful advocate.”