As she stayed up late to study on a hot July night, Bridgette Blair wasn't planning to chronicle one of the most bizarre and destructive nights State College has ever seen.
The former Daily Collegian Editor in Chief said she didn't quite believe her friend when he called her after midnight on July 12, 1998 to inform her of what was happening on Beaver Avenue.
"They told me, 'Bridgette, you better come down here, there's some stuff going on downtown,' " she said.
When she finally arrived at the 200 and 300 blocks of Beaver Avenue, Blair was one of two Collegian reporters to record the actions of 1,500 rioters early on the last day of the 1998 Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts.
"It was chaotic," she said. "It was just a whole bunch of people in the middle of the night destroying things."
After a garbage can and a "party ball," a keg in the shape of a sphere, were thrown off of apartment balconies and into the street, a mostly intoxicated crowd grew rowdy, knocking down street lights, starting fires in the street, smashing windows and vandalizing cars, according to Collegian archives. When the crowd finally dispersed, it left in its wake more than $150,000 in damage and at least 20 initial arrests.
Ten years later, the police officers who worked to quell the crowd
still remember that night.
State College Police Cpt. Dana Leonard has seen a lot in his 30 years in uniform, but he said his experience that night "stands out."
"In that one or two block area, the order of the community broke down for a couple hours," he said. "For whatever reason, the crowd went wild."
Blair remembers people dancing around a bonfire, at least one of whom she said was naked. She could hardly believe what she was seeing.
"It wasn't that anyone was upset over anything specific," she said. "That's what was mysterious about it."
The events were particularly disturbing to the police, who were understaffed, unprepared and taken off guard, said State College Police Chief Tom King, who acted as the department's spokesman in the aftermath of the riots.
As the crowd grew more destructive, police tried several times to disperse the rioters and were met with defiance, King said. Soon, some rioters became violent -- throwing bottles and approaching the police line with streetlights they had ripped out from the ground.
"We didn't have riot gear, and we didn't have helmets for the officers to wear," King said, adding some officers sustained injuries such as a broken finger and lacerations to the face.
When Pennsylvania State Police reinforcements arrived at about 4 a.m., the riot had gone on for two and a half hours, King said.
With increased numbers and riot gear, police began to move in and break up the crowd. When onlookers and rioters didn't quickly disperse, police sprayed the crowd with tear gas and began making arrests, King said.
Blair remembers being too absorbed in her reporting to notice at first that police had begun to move in.
"One of the photographers there pulled me into a ditch," she said. "He's like, 'Bridgette, cover your eyes.' "
Some students later complained of police using excessive force, saying they were arrested when they were not direct participants in the riot. But Leonard said claims of police brutality came from students being confused about their rights.
"If a person is in a crowd and there are people in the crowd that are disorderly, the law requires that you move on," he said. "Our job is to restore order as quickly as possible."
About 20 initial arrests were made, but after news stations and onlookers provided video footage of the riots, more than 50 people -- students, visitors and locals -- were arrested, King said.
Those arrested faced a variety of charges, the most common being misdemeanors such as failure to disperse and disorderly conduct, King said. According to Collegian archives, the most serious charges leveled were rioting, arson and aggravated assault, all felonies.
In all, 16 men were sentenced in March 1999 for their part in the riot, two facing prison sentences of 23 1/2 months. Most paid fines and received community service, according to Collegian archives.
The community has come a long way since two smaller riots at the 2000 and 2001 Arts Festivals, State College Borough Council President Elizabeth Goreham said.
"The mentality has really shifted," she said. "The police now, I think, are able to diffuse situations, ... make sure that these crowds aren't able to work themselves up."
Following the events of 1998, King said the State College Police brought in a riot control expert and invested in riot gear and special training. The town has gone seven years without an incident.
"We're hopeful that that chapter is behind us," Leonard said.