Concerted Effort

It is what’s needed, history shows, to avert tragedies such as the deadly crowd surge at Houston concert.

by Vince Farinaccio

When history repeats itself as tragedy, it’s difficult to ignore the precedents, however eerie. Such is the case with rapper Travis Scott’s November 5 Astroworld Festival in Houston that left eight dead and hundreds more injured.

Scott’s concerts are known for what the New York Times refers to as “good-natured physical expression—what [Scott] calls ‘raging…’ ” In Houston, according to what one concertgoer told the New York Times, “people collapsed…And few rushed to their aid.” He explained that it was common at other shows to “pick people up” in those circumstances, but it couldn’t be done in Houston. “There were too many people,” he said. “Everywhere you were, people were pushing you.”

The New York Times reported that “people were trampling over each other inside the show…” and videos posted by concertgoers on November 5 show “some people in the crowd pleading for help and others unaware of any serious problems.”

On December 3, 1979, before the Who played its first notes at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum, 11 fans had already apparently died from what the coroner’s report later called “suffocation by asphyxiation due to compression” and “suffocation due to accidental mob stampede.” The blame was assigned to “festival seating” that provided general admission tickets instead of reserved seating. It apparently wasn’t the only factor.

In his detailed coverage of the concert in Rolling Stone, Chet Flippo reconstructed the events leading to the tragedy, from the first sign of fans outside the arena around 1:30 p.m. to the 8,000-plus crowd “packed around the banks of doors [that] were beginning to present a problem” by 6:30 p.m. Doors were scheduled to open at seven o’clock. By now, “it was thirty-six degrees and the wind coming off the Ohio River made it feel much colder,” Flippo writes.

By this point, the forward crush had already begun. According to Flippo, “people in the back were yelling, ‘One, two, three, push!” but they didn’t know people in the front were falling.”

The Riverfront Coliseum doors opened at 7:05 p.m., but just how many doors remains a mystery. Several individuals affiliated with the arena/concert, according to Rolling Stone, claim 16 doors were opened. An attorney for the promoter said nine to 11. Flippo reports that “including exits, there are 106 doors at the coliseum” and “dozens of eyewitnesses told Rolling Stone that never during the trouble were more than four doors open and that only two were open most of the time.”

At 8:20, the Who took the stage.

In 2021, “raging” isn’t too different from what various rock musicians, including the Who, did over the decades. If, as the New York Times reports, Scott “linked his childhood fantasy of becoming a professional wrestler to his later desire to make his concerts ‘feel like it was the WWF,’ ” it’s similar to when Doors singer Jim Morrison, adept at inciting his own audiences, witnessed a week of performances in 1969 by guerrilla theatrical company the Living Theater, and used, according to the biography Break on Through, “several of its confrontive techniques for promoting audience awareness the very next night…in Miami.”

Unlike Houston 2021, however, there were no fatalities in Miami 1969.

To avert such tragedy, performers can ensure a safe environment for fans by, say, avoiding “festival seating” or limiting attendance. In return, audience members can look out for each other and curtail bad habits acquired from decades of limited oversight. Performers hold the most sway over attendees but seem the most reluctant to admonish them. The Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir was known to instruct audiences to step back to provide space for fans pressed against the stage. Frank Zappa told audiences to sit down. And Roger Waters once scolded a talkative, unruly Philadelphia crowd. Now such moments are rare.

As Flippo dryly noted in 1979, “The night of the Who concert, business continued as usual until eleven people died.”

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