Amid a sea of colourful tents and with music rocking in the background, the RCMP spent the weekend searching for clues to the sudden death of a young man at the Pemberton Music Festival.
Nick Phongsavath, a 21-year-old engineering student from the University of Regina, was found dead as more than 20,000 concert goers gathered at the site, 30 kilometres north of Whistler, to party and listen to Nine Inch Nails, Outkast, Deadmau5, Soundgarden and other bands.
Mr. Phongsavath’s body, police say, was found inside his tent just after 6 p.m. Friday.
“As it appeared that there may be indications of foul play, the Integrated Homicide Investigation Team was called and is currently leading this suspicious death investigation,” the RCMP said in a statement.
“IHIT is working closely with the Sea-to-Sky detachment and have been interviewing witnesses and speaking with event attendees throughout the night. At this point, there is nothing to confirm or definitively rule out foul play,” said Staff Sergeant Jennifer Pound.
The festival, which in the past has been marred by organizational problems, has developed into one of the most popular music events in British Columbia, drawing large crowds from across Western Canada and the U.S. Fans camp in grassy fields with mountains providing a dramatic backdrop to three stages where more than 50 bands perform over five days.
“It is estimated that there are close to 20,000 participants attending this music festival, creating a very dynamic environment for investigators,” said Staff Sgt. Pound.
About 30 tents and a row of portable toilets were marked by police tape as part of a possible crime scene, with a black police command truck parked nearby.
“IHIT, along with the Integrated Forensics Identification Service (IFIS) was processing the scene overnight and throughout the day today,” said the RCMP statement. “The deceased has been removed from the location … An autopsy will be required to determine the cause of death.”
Reut Amit, an articling student from Vancouver was one of the first to tweet about the incident, noting early Friday evening that “Something has happened at the #pemberton music festival.”
“Police officer just confirmed it’s a crime scene, dead body,” she wrote. “Police say there were four men involved. One is deceased . . . RCMP in the blue tent next to black tarp.”
The RCMP could not be immediately reached to comment on Ms. Amit’s observations.
In a statement HUKA Entertainment, the concert organizers, said the festival continued because police believed the incident didn’t raise safety fears.
“The RCMP have assured us that this was an isolated incident and the site is safe and secure,” the organizers said. “With the support of the RCMP and IHIT we are continuing with the Pemberton Music Festival.”
The organizers said arrangements had been made to provide accommodations “for anyone affected by this occurrence” and counselling was available for both guests and staff.
“Our hearts are with the family and friends of the deceased,” said the statement.
Police said the festival otherwise had a “reasonably low” level of incidents, with seven people arrested for intoxication or causing a disturbance.
While the music continued over the weekend, the death didn’t go unnoticed.
“It definitely put a damper on things,” Jordan Johanssen, a camper from Montana told the Pique, a Whistler newsmagazine.
“It’s just really sad,” added Addison Grafton, of Colorado.
“I’m not sure if Nick Phongsavath was a fan. But tonight’s show’s dedicated to him,” Canadian musician Matthew Good said in a tweet, Sunday.
A woman who answered the phone at the Phongsavath residence declined comment.