When the college student behind the online sensation "Storm Area 51" announced plans for an alien festival out in the Nevada desert, organizers tried to fend off worries that thousands of people would overwhelm the resources of a tiny town without a store or gas station.
Or, as they put it to The Washington Post: This is not Fyre Festival 2.0.
But that was before a public falling-out between organizers made the weird story of the Area 51 craze even weirder, months after the meteoric rise of a joke Facebook event that got more than 2 million to say they'd raid a secretive Air Force base for rumored extraterrestrials. Dueling accusations of dishonesty and sabotage have derailed "Alienstock" - a Woodstock for alien watchers - which creator Matty Roberts promoted as alternative programming to any plans to storm the base on Sept. 20 despite officials' warnings.
With just over a week to go until the event, Roberts and the host town's website are both comparing Alienstock to the Fyre Festival, which was supposed to be held in April and May of 2017 in the Bahamas but became synonymous with "epic failure" and led to a fraud conviction. Roberts has pulled his name and support from the three-day gathering in Rachel, Nevada, but the owner of a motel in the town who had signed up as a partner plans to go ahead.
"There's no safety or security that can really be promised," Roberts told The Post on Tuesday, calling the event a potential "humanitarian disaster." "I didn't feel comfortable with inviting even my friends and family out to this event, let alone these thousands of strangers."
Video: Why a recent admission from the government is like pouring kerosene on UFO conspiracy theories. (Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)
For Roberts, it all fell apart unexpectedly. But the town of Rachel - where residents were reportedly less than pleased with the "Storm Area 51" media swarm - has expressed less surprise.
The outcome was "just as we had predicted," the town's website declares in red lettering. Officials in two counties prepared earlier to declare emergencies, unsure how many people might descend on rural Nevada.
"If any event still happens it is going to be a pretty sad affair with no bands, very little infrastructure and a lot of unhappy campers," the statement continues, making a final plea for everyone to stay away.
Roberts and fellow organizer Frank DiMaggio blame their ex-partner on the ground in Rachel: the inn owner who they say was handling most of the logistics and became increasingly evasive about her preparations as the big date approached. Little A'Le'Inn proprietor Connie West accuses them of betrayal, saying she has lined up the necessary infrastructure and support staff, confirmed performers and sold 2,400 camp sites.
Two documents shown on a local news program as evidence of her efforts were apparently completed the day Roberts said he had pulled out. A $17,500 check for security services is dated Sept. 8; so is West's signature on an agreement for medical services.
West did not immediately respond to an inquiry from The Post.
Roberts, a 21-year-old from Bakersfield, California, propelled to minor fame by the Area 51 phenomenon, said he got cold feet after DiMaggio, a more experienced planner brought in less than two weeks ago, deemed the event beyond help. Earlier, Roberts had been steering the festival with another college student.
"We started asking the hard questions that these kids didn't know how to ask," DiMaggio said.
Samuel Scheller, CEO of Guardian Elite Medical Services, told The Post his group is providing Alienstock with 16 medical staffers, a first aid tent, ambulances and more than half a ton of supplies. Local news outlet Action 13 News reported that it verified other preparations, too: agreements with companies to provide 130 portable toilets and police officers to supplement more than 250 first responders from state and local government.
But DiMaggio and Roberts say no proof of preparations materialized when they pressed West before splitting with her. They told The Post that Guardian Medical enlisted DiMaggio's help because West had "lost control" of the event.
Scheller confirmed that he connected West and DiMaggio, another client of his, because he thought it could be a "great partnership" (DiMaggio had been denied a permit for his competing Peacestock 51 event in the area). Asked if he had doubts about West's preparations, Scheller declined to comment.
Roberts, who was expecting about 10,000 people to attend Alienstock before his break with West, said the falling-out does not mean Area 51 fans need to stay home. They can head to Las Vegas instead for an "Area 51 Celebration" at a downtown events center. Organizers for that alternative Sept. 19 gathering invited Roberts on Monday to join them.
It's not clear how many people could still show up to Rachel. West, tearful at times in footage aired by Action 13 News, says Alienstock is still on.
"She's saying they're coming anyway," DiMaggio said. "I really hope that they're not."
This article was written by Hannah Knowles, a reporter for The Washington Post.