Fires, destruction reported on State Street, other areas; Limestone calmer

Herald-Leader Staff WritersMarch 31, 2012 

Jubilation over the University of Kentucky's win over the University of Louisville quickly turned into scenes of couch-burning mayhem in key celebratory areas around campus.

State Street, which had become the epicenter of couch burning in recent weeks, was quickly filled with thousands of people, smoke and flying beer bottles. Police in riot gear with fire extinguishers and batons dodged bottles from the growing crowd and tried to stop a raft of couch fires.

Police blocked people from an empty building, but could not stop at least five cars from being flipped over, set on fire or vandalized. Much of the violence was accompanied by people chanting a war cry of "C-A-T-S, Cats, Cats, Cats!"

Fire department officials said at least 39 fires occurred in the campus area, mostly on State Street, and mostly to couches and trash. The Fire Department also made 12 first-aid runs.

Lexington police spokeswoman Sherelle Roberts said there were no reports of serious injuries to officers by about 1 a.m. Sunday. Several minor injuries had been reported.

"There are always minor injuries when officers are being pelted with rocks, bottles and cans of food," she said. "Thankfully, no officers were seriously hurt that we're aware of right now."

She said as of 1 a.m., there had been 13 to 15 arrests. Many were for arson.

Police openly filmed the crowds while undercover police and the city's helicopter, which hovered over State Street, also took video, Maynard said.

In a statement released about 12:30 a.m. Sunday, the University of Kentucky warned students could face consequences for participating in illegal activities or activities that violated student codes of conduct.

"We appreciate the work of public safety officers at UK and Lexington in addressing the incidents this evening," spokesman Jay Blanton said in the written statement. "It is unfortunate that a small number of people are using what should be a night of celebration as an excuse to attempt to tarnish the university and the community. To the extent that students are involved in any illegal activity or actions that violate the university's student code, they will be dealt with appropriately."

Some students in the State Street area were surprised by revelers' behavior.

"This is the craziest thing I've seen in my whole life," said UK student Alex Elgin. "It's extremely violent."

UK freshman Hope Nils said many of her friends live in the area and bought couches to burn especially for the occasion.

"It is madness, and I want to be in the middle of it," she said.

By 9:45 p.m., police in riot gear were sweeping State Street by walking down the street in formation followed by another officer carrying a video camera, recording the crowds. Revelers started to disperse, but some flung beer bottles at officers' helmets.

The crowd finally started to dwindle significantly by midnight.

Over at Euclid and Woodland, fans were less destructive in their euphoria.

Within minutes after Kentucky had sealed the victory, crowds started dancing and shouting in the streets as a large contingent of police in riot gear and some on horses looked on. Police also could be seen on top of a few buildings.

UK student Trevor Kidd of Lexington showed how peaceful it was at Euclid and Woodland by showing well-wishers his T-shirt that displayed a burning couch.

"No trouble here," he said.

An ugly incident occurred in the area during the first half of the game when two men walking on the sidewalk on Euclid exchanged harsh words.

One head-butted the other in the face, attracting police attention.

Police later reported couch fires on Euclid at Transylvania and Linden Walk. The intersection of Euclid and Woodland was closed to traffic.

South Limestone, where bars and restaurants had been packed all day, was closed after the game until shortly before midnight. At least 5,000 people, based on crowd-size projections from bar owners, spilled into the street after the UK victory.

The Tin Roof had fenced off its property and set up a big-screen TV in the parking lot's corner. People were allowed inside for a $5 cover charge, and employees estimated 3,500 people had come and gone during the day.

Police appeared to avert one potential drama. Lexington police Cmdr. Ken Armstrong said police talked to a Louisville fan on South Limestone, He showed up at the Tin Roof carrying a gun he didn't conceal. Police took the gun, and asked him to pick it up later. But they did not arrest him.

Tin Roof co-owner Wes Stephens negotiated with the city to get approval to have the big TV, and the city allowed it as long as the screen wasn't facing the street. The TV was pointed toward the parking lot. More people gathered inside and some on the roof.

Despite the large crowd, everyone was fairly relaxed during the game and there were no problems.

"Our drinks aren't even that cheap," Stephens said. "We just try to make it a fun atmosphere. We try to build an atmosphere rather than, hey here's dollar beers."

Saturday's game was the first time two Kentucky universities, let alone two harsh rivals such as UK and U of L, have vied for a spot in the championship.

On April 1, 1996, crowds took to the streets after UK won the national championship against Syracuse. Cars were crushed; police officers and bystanders were hit with rocks and bottles; and a television news van was overturned and set ablaze.

City and UK officials had also urged fans repeatedly through the week to keep cool after the historic game.

But now city and UK officials have yet another night to get through, that of the championship game itself on Monday night.

"If this is a preview for Monday night," said Samantha Shirley, who was watching the crowds on State Street, "then I feel sorry for the police."

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