Hoping for celebration without tragedy


A University of Florida students walks past the Bull Gator statue as it sits fenced in outside of the Heavener Football Complex on Wednesday. University of Florida maintenance support workers have enclosed and gathered a majority of items and statues that can be damaged or thrown in preparation for Thursday's national championship game celebration in-case the Florida Gators football team wins.

Aaron Daye/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Thursday, January 8, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 7, 2009 at 11:24 p.m.

Law officers working tonight's post-game detail - the first national title bid for the Gators since April 2007, when a Gainesville police lieutenant was fatally injured amid the celebration on W. University Avenue - have made preparations that they hope will prevent a repeat of the tragedy.

Facts

How to celebrate

If there is an outdoor celebration tonight, police have this advice:

- Don't bring glass bottles
- Don't use fireworks. A county-wide burn ban remains in effect.
- Don't climb light poles or traffic signals. They will be greased.
- Don't park close to University Avenue. During the last championship celebration, fans stood on top of such cars and drivers couldn't move their vehicles until the celebration ended early in the morning. General parking rules are in effect on campus.

Other information:
- City bus routes will be adjusted. Routes 5, Later Gator A and Later Gator C will begin route detours at 10 p.m. until the end of their service day. Check www.go-rts.com or call (352) 334-2600.
- Firefighters will check for safety code violations such as blocked exits and overcrowding at bars.
- Authorities will monitor activity on some city streets, such as W. University Avenue, using the city's traffic monitoring cameras.
- If roads are blocked, some on-campus closures will include Gale Lemerand Drive between University Avenue and the stadium and Buckman Drive between University Avenue and Union Road. Officers also may only allow westbound traffic on SW 2nd Avenue from the O'Connell Center to Woodlawn Drive.
- The football team won't return to Gainesville until sometime Friday. People can go to the airport, but police noted there are no formal plans at this time for fans to greet or see players at the Gainesville Regional Airport.

They want a night when no one - fans or officers - gets hurt.

Fans should expect to see more than 100 officers in the area of W. University Avenue. Light poles and traffic signals will be greased along University near campus to prevent climbers.

Florida Highway Patrol troopers will check for impaired drivers. Gainesville firefighters will conduct bar inspections at night, looking for overcrowding and other fire safety code violations.

And this year, the crowd will be on camera.

This is the first championship game in which the city will use its traffic monitoring cameras, some of which have been in place for several years, to watch what happens in areas such as W. University Avenue, said traffic operations manager Phil Mann.

And, in a change directly tied to circumstances surrounding the April 2007 death of Gainesville Police Lt. Corey Dahlem, police will use "hard barricades" if a section of University Avenue is closed for a post-game celebration.

Hard barricades utilize vehicles, like trucks, to block the road instead of wooden barricades.

Traditionally, traffic is diverted from the stretch of University bordering the north side of campus when the Gators bring home a championship. Gator devotees party in the street, clog sidewalks in a mass of orange and blue, and shout for the team.

Officers allow and monitor the street party before clearing the area by 2 a.m.

Some officers chose not to be on duty tonight because it will be the same detail when Dahlem was fatally injured, said Lt. Mike Schibuola, who is overseeing GPD's security preparations.

"There have been some people who have had a tough time, who don't want to be involved in the detail again," he said.

GPD Lt. Keith Kameg said, "We want to see the University of Florida do well. Yet, for all of us, when they do well, it's a constant reminder of one of our worst days."

Dahlem's death didn't just affect the city police department.

"That type of tragedy always brings to mind the dangers of our job," said UF police Lt. Robert Wagner. "It reminds us to be aware."

Still, Schibuola said, "Everybody realizes that we have to be out there."

That night in 2007, the street still was closed to traffic, but most people had left the area and cleaners had started work to return the roadway to normal.

Dahlem was hit by a pickup as he crossed the street with another officer.

Dahlem was carried onto the pickup's hood, thrown about 20 feet, and landed under the rear of a truck, troopers said at the time.

Although the intersection at NW 15th Avenue and University was closed to traffic, there was no barricade to stop the pickup's driver, Austin Wright, from driving onto University.

Officers had opted not to use the wooden barricades out of concern they could be used as projectiles or set on fire.

Officers and their vehicles instead were stationed at major intersections.

This time, if needed, Florida Department of Transportation vehicles will be used to block intersections near 17th Street and University to form an inner perimeter, police said.

Other barricades and officers will be posted beyond as part of an outer boundary around the area.

Dahlem, 45, never woke up after he was injured and transported to the hospital. He later died after being removed from life support.

Wright, then a 21-year-old University of North Florida student who was in Gainesville celebrating the basketball title win, now is serving a 10-year prison sentence for aggravated manslaughter.

Schibuola said police talked with bar owners about issues including overcrowding and limiting the sale of drinks in glass bottles. Police don't want anyone in the crowd carrying and throwing bottles or using fireworks.

Both could cause injuries, Wagner said. Plus, a burn ban remains countywide.

Dahlem's widow, Sally, has sent out her own message: She asks that people stay safe and that bars take responsibility for monitoring crowds.

She hopes a memorial to her husband on NW 17th Street will serve as a reminder to those out after the game.

"We certainly hope the game is a good and safe game and nobody gets hurt," she said.

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