- Peter McGuire
Astroworld and the Continuing Threat of Crushes
This is the tenth and final installment of Crushes and Stampedes.
There are already some excellent sources out there on the Astroworld disaster. I recommend reading the Houston Chronicle’s breakdown of events or the Washington Post’s analysis for the details. This case is also subject to ongoing inquiries and lawsuits, so we will likely learn more over the next year or so.
In short, the Astroworld festival sounds like a powder keg for crushing. Staff were recently hired and barely trained. The organizers had no contingency plans for a crush or gate breaches despite the gate being breached at the previous Astroworld. As should have been expected, gates were breached again in 2020 and additional unticketed fans entered the festival area. Chain of command documents indicated that only the executive producer or festival director could stop the concert. Employees quit that morning because they felt unsafe. Medical checkpoints were already overwhelmed with injuries before the concert began. The place was a disaster before Travis Scott took the stage at 9:06 pm.
His arrival was accompanied by a crowd surge, turning the overcrowded standing area into a crush. People near the front had no way to escape as pressure increased between them and the barriers. One system for analyzing crowd danger defines a “very dense crowd” as 1.2 people per square foot. A conservative analysis of the crush at Astroworld estimates there were 1.85 people per square foot. By the time Scott took the stage at 9:06, the first victims had already lost consciousness. By 9:18, the fire department recorded its first crush injury.
By 9:38, several victims were in cardiac arrest. The CEO of a medic company working the festival, ParaDocs, reported “Seeing so many young people getting CPR at one time, it's just something no one should have to go through. Even though we're medical professionals, we should be used to it. You can't get used to something like that.” At this point the ParaDocs dispatcher relayed a mass-casualty incident. Houston Fire Department Chiefs deferred the decision to end the show to the production company and the performer Travis Scott, saying they did not have the power to end the show.
At 9:53, Houston Fire Department upgraded the incident to a Level 2 mass-casualty event and requested medical backup. By now, at least 5 victims were dead. Scott reported that at 10:00 he got the first request to end the show in his earpiece with no explanation as to why. The show finally ended at 10:15, over an hour after the first crush victim lost consciousness.
Whether Travis Scott contributed to the danger and deaths is being hotly debated. His shows have had trampling incidents in the past and many fans and Astroworld staff claim that he fosters a dangerously violent atmosphere at shows. Scott stopped the show three times due to crowd disruptions, first at 9:24, saying “somebody passed out right here”, then at 9:30, when he spotted an ambulance, and again at 9:42 when he noticed another unconscious person. Stopping the show at any of these points would have saved lives. However, it seems very unlikely that Travis Scott knew about the extent of the problem until after the show.
In the days after, the internet was full of videos of other artists stopping their shows when they noticed crowd danger. Artists have expressed a desire to be more proactive in the future about watching the crowd for signs of danger. That said, it can be very difficult for an artist at a large festival show to see the details of the crowd and make informed decisions about their health. Especially at night, stage lights block out most of the audience. Camera operators, security personnel, and event managers have a much better view and understanding of the crowd.
In this case, a camera operator was disrupted at 9:34 by several people climbing the camera tower warning that “People are fucking dying.” Organizers definitely knew of casualties by this point and did not stop the show. Neither did police or fire department officials. Suggesting that Scott is more responsible than informed event security and emergency service authorities makes no sense. The Fire Chief involved argued after the event that “you cannot just close when you have over 50,000 individuals,” implying that there would have been a riot without Scott’s cooperation. This should go without saying, but security and artists must work together to keep safety a high priority. Houston Fire Department’s claim that they had no power to stop the show is belied by their actions at the 2019 Astroworld, where they cut power and sound when the show ran 5 minutes late.
Festival-style events have long been known as a major crush danger. Organizers say that at larger, outdoor events, implementing any kind of assigned seating or standing room would be impossible to enforce. If you go to a large festival event, I would urge you not to try and get a good spot in the crowd. Crushes most often happen towards the front of the crowd, where their movement is stopped by barricades in front of the stage.
Security must also be better trained in crush procedures. Instead of proactively rescuing crush victims against the front barrier, guards were seen tying barriers together to reinforce them. If crowd pressure is great enough to buckle barriers, it’s great enough to kill. Guards were not trained to spot or save crush victims. Critics have also pointed out that steps short of ending the show should have been taken, including a longer show pause, partial evacuation, and emergency messaging on the speakers or video boards.
We will need to wait for the 275 civil lawsuits and numerous criminal investigations into Astroworld pan out before we have a clear picture of what all went wrong. From my perspective, Live Nation must accept the majority of the blame. Live Nation events have injured 750 and killed 200 since 2006. Reports from employees indicate a pervasive history of underfunding and understaffing events despite the company generating $3 million in profits a year as of 2019. If we value concertgoers’ lives over corporate profits, we must hold organizers to a much higher standard.
Mourners at Astroworld
Today and the Future
Despite our growing knowledge of crowd science, crush prevention remains a largely reactive discipline. In the wake of deadly incidents, depending on the class and nationality of the victims, there is a scramble for better legislation and policies surrounding crowd safety that quickly wanes.
As I’ve mentioned ad nauseum now, only large-scale event planning can truly prevent crushes. However, if the average person understands crushes better, it creates a greater, better-informed demand for proactive prevention practices. We should be expecting every large festival-style event and every building to have sufficient exits, prepared staff, and medical backup ready to handle casualties if a crush does happen. Remember that a fast and effective medical response can save most crushing injuries from ending in death.
We have a long way to go. In publishing the first month of episodes on this topic, most of the comments I got assumed they didn’t need to learn about crushes because they already understood: humans are dumb, panicky animals that bolt and crush each other. Let’s all try to shift that understanding because it only benefits the parties who are actually responsible for crushes on a large scale by blaming victims instead. I hope I’ve shown that fleeing is the normal and necessary response to imminent danger and trampling deaths account for a minor part of human stampede deaths. Be skeptical of articles that blame events on the panic instead of the danger.
I think it’s likely that in the future we will see a new cause of crushes: fear of mass shootings. During World War II, both England and Italy experienced mass-casualty crushes when citizens fled for bomb shelters during bombing raids. As hundreds of people descended stairs into shelters, people tripped and quickly blocked descending stairs, creating a crush. Hopefully we don’t see a return of aerial raids to major cities, but a new danger (and fear) has emerged that causes people in crowded metro areas to stampede.
On August 6th, 2019 a car backfield in New York’s Times Square. The crowd interpreted the sound as gunshots and fled, injuring 9 people. 9 trampling injuries is minor compared to the death toll of public mass shootings, but it should serve as a warning. If people in these situations flee for a subway entrance or another enclosed building, it could quickly become a true crush.
There’s little we can do about this danger on a systemic level other than reduce the frequency of mass shooter events. We’re at the point where, in America, we’re locking down elementary schools because a car backfired in the parking lot. Mass shootings dropped off during the pandemic. That will likely change in the next few years. Even if the mass shootings don’t kill us, the very real fear of them might.
My mom mentioned to me that, since listening to the first batch of episodes, she has noticed headlines about crushes much more and is more worried about being in crowds. I’ll admit that since first researching the building fires, I’ve been pretty uncomfortable at large stadium concerts and sports events.
I don’t think we need to be scared but we should be cautious. Take it for better and worse that individual decisions will have little impact on your survival once a crush begins. That said, getting to higher ground, avoiding standing close to front railings, and reacting to danger quickly all have helped victims in the stories I’ve taken you through. Like most disasters, it’s ultimately children, the elderly, and the weak who die in the greatest numbers because they are less able to escape danger, more likely to get trampled, and less able to survive crush injuries. If we want to protect our children and grandparents (or parents), we need to treat crushes much more seriously and scientifically.