By Chuck Strouse
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For years, Ultra Music Festival avoided the deadly drug overdoses that had done in many other mega electronica events. In April, however, Riptide revealed that 24 people were taken to the hospital during this year's edition of Ultra. One of them, a 20-year-old New Jersey native named Anthony Cassano, died from a suspected drug overdose.
But even that tragedy pales in comparison to the petrifying tale of how a 23-year-old went into a coma and nearly died after a stranger gave him water laced with antifreeze during Ultra.
"It was a horribly terrifying thing," says the young man's mother, who spoke to Riptide on the condition that her and her son's names be withheld. "You don't think going to a concert is going to kill you, especially the water."
There are no police records to verify the woman's complaint, because her son survived the ordeal. However, medical records she provided to Riptide back up her horror story. A spokesperson for Ultra did not respond to an email request for comment.
The woman and her husband's nightmare began around 1:45 a.m. March 18, when a call came from a doctor at Jackson Memorial Hospital. He said their son was in a coma and near death. "We threw everything into the car and drove" from out of state, the mom says. "It was either going to be a really short trip or a really long one."
When they arrived at Jackson, their son was unresponsive. He had a fever of 108 degrees, and his organs were shutting down. By Tuesday, doctors told the parents their son needed liver and kidney transplants.
Physicians were baffled. But friends at his bedside said he had chugged what he thought was water from a jug offered by a stranger. One of the friends had taken just a sip from the jug and had burns on his tongue from the specious liquid.
"Antifreeze — that's what they now think it was," the mother says. "Apparently it's what the old-time drunks used to get because it's so cheap."
Shortly after drinking the wacky water, the 23-year-old dropped to the ground near the entrance to Ultra. He lay there, convulsing, for barely a minute before paramedics spotted him and whisked him to the hospital.
After four days in a coma at Jackson, the young man finally regained consciousness. That, his mother says, was actually the most terrifying part.
"The worst moment was when he was starting to wake up and we didn't know what his brain capacity was going to be," she says tearfully. "I'm a teacher. All his life I told him: 'They can't take your education from you.' And suddenly I thought it could be gone. He is just a really sharp, smart, charismatic kid, and I'm thinking, Oh my God, it could basically be gone."
Amazingly, her son's intellect had survived the coma and multiple strokes. "At first he was very disoriented," she says. "But then he just said, 'I'm so sorry.'"
Over the course of three weeks at Jackson, her son's liver and kidneys slowly recovered. And after intense physical therapy, he was able to walk again. The only thing that hasn't fully recovered yet is his speech, which was slurred by the multiple strokes.
"This is a kid we always said would be either a used-car salesman or a lawyer," she says. "But he's taking speech therapy classes and getting better. You would think that he would be angry... but he's just thankful to be alive."
His mother, on the other hand, is not so forgiving. Although she scolds her son ("He failed Kindergarten 101: Don't take candy from strangers"), she saves her rage for the two-weekend-long rave. "We're still dealing with Ultra on a weekly basis," she says.
"My son is six-foot-four. He went from sending me a text one day, perfectly healthy, to needing a double organ transplant the next," she says. "I would love to put a billboard up in front of [Bayfront Park] showing before and after pictures of him. It was horrible."
She says her son lost 30 pounds and nearly his life, and she blames the drug culture that surrounds electronic dance music festivals. "Who gives someone water with antifreeze in it?" she asks before wondering how many other kids were hospitalized because of the festival.
"We were told by nurses that others came in brain dead," she says. "This was before the young man from New Jersey died the next weekend." (Four months after the festival, Riptide has yet to receive full records we've requested from City of Miami Fire-Rescue.)
She also says that if Ultra's free water hadn't been limited to a few spigots far from the stages, her son could have been spared his nightmarish near-death experience. "My son is not a druggie," the mom says. "If he was, I'd say, 'Serves him right.' He wasn't thinking when he decided to go to this concert, but certainly he didn't deserve this."