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Sacramento city officials examine chaotic Easter egg hunt

Easter eggs are collected by Vasiliy Smolikov of Sacramento on Monday, after thousands were left at Capitol Mall from an egg hunt on Saturday that failed to break a world record of 501,000 set in 2007 in Florida.
Easter eggs are collected by Vasiliy Smolikov of Sacramento on Monday, after thousands were left at Capitol Mall from an egg hunt on Saturday that failed to break a world record of 501,000 set in 2007 in Florida. hamezcua@sacbee.com

The frenzied Easter egg hunt at the state Capitol on Saturday continued to make news Monday, as the city of Sacramento announced it was investigating the event and media worldwide replayed images of fighting parents and crying children jockeying for plastic egg shells.

Billed as the world’s largest Easter egg hunt, the Saturday festivities instead turned into a free-for-all, with adults pushing and arguing their way to collect 510,000 Easter eggs in an attempt to beat a 2007 record of 501,000 eggs in Florida. The event drew 20,000 people, according to organizer Blue Heart International, a year-old Sacramento nonprofit that helps victims of human trafficking.

As soon as the first eggs hit the ground, people of all ages lunged for the colorful plastic shells, scooping them up by the armful into oversized plastic bags and laundry baskets. About 12 volunteers watched in dismay, powerless to stop the crowd. No barricade was in place to prevent people from reaching the eggs.

While the event has been ridiculed in the press and on social media, organizers on Monday blamed parents for starting the unrest and said they believed attendees would abide by an honor system.

“I envisioned a lot of parents being kind and courteous, which is probably too much to ask, in retrospect,” said Aaron Hutchinson, the event director. “If they would have stood back and let the kiddos do their thing, there wouldn’t have been so much unrest.”

Melissa Romero, special event supervisor for the city of Sacramento, said officials are looking into whether protocols were followed after numerous complaints about the lack of crowd control and management.

Events on city property are vetted through an extensive permitting process, but the onus of following the plan lies with the organizer. City officials said they were blindsided by the chaos because Blue Heart appeared to be taking the appropriate steps to carry out the event.

On Saturday, the nonprofit was severely understaffed and did not have the 300 volunteers it had promised to hire, according to the city.

During the most crowded time of the event, Sacramento police reported that only 12 volunteers were on hand to direct people, Romero said. She added that organizers also failed to hire security guards from a company approved by the city.

Asked about the penalties Blue Heart could face, Romero said, “We can deny future permits. We can hold them financially responsible.”

“I think the venue is fine,” she said. “The issues were safety and a lack of management plan.”

Blue Heart paid the city $1,000 for the permit and $2,378 for seven Sacramento police officers to close roads and provide security.

Part of the event was held on the state Capitol grounds, which doesn’t require a permit fee. Officer Mike Jones of the California Highway Patrol said the agency typically recommends a security guard or volunteer per every 50 attendees. By that count, the event should have had 400 volunteers.

Blue Heart CEO Blake McCall declined to be interviewed on Monday. In an emailed statement, he said, “It’s unfortunate that some of the attendees did not follow the rules, which understandably upset those who did.”

McCall added that the organization intends to host another Easter egg hunt next year. CHP and city officials said they would give future events extra scrutiny.

Sharon Gerber, a veteran event organizer who has planned high-profile events like Mayor Kevin Johnson’s inauguration, said large-scale events typically require at least nine months of planning.

“That way you can make sure everything arrives on time,” she said. “You can also walk through a lot of scenarios.”

Hutchinson said planning for the Easter egg hunt began two months ago.

The lack of manpower surfaced in the days leading up to hunt, as Blue Heart asked the general public and attendees at the last minute to help assemble its plastic eggs. In a previous interview, McCall said the eggs arrived only two days before the hunt because of a shipping delay.

That also meant representatives from Guinness World Records couldn’t certify the event.

“The organizer had not completed egg assembly at the start time of event. It became impossible to monitor or verify the egg assembly process as the area was swarmed with members of the public,” Guinness spokesman Anthony Yodice said in an email.

Charlissa Strong of West Sacramento believed a VIP egg hunt on Capitol Mall would attract far fewer people because parents had to pay $20 a child. Instead, the mall became a melee of crying children and angry adults.

“Everyone just rushed the field at once,” Strong said. “I was so afraid my daughter was going to get hurt. This could have easily been a stampede.”

Call The Bee’s Richard Chang at (916) 321-1018. Follow him on Twitter @RichardYChang.

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