On Friday night, eight people were killed as a giant crowd at Houston’s NRG Park surged toward Travis Scott’s headlining performance at his 50,000-attendee Astroworld music festival. Concertgoers reported being trampled, crushed, and in some cases unable to move or breathe; videos showed an emergency vehicle coming to a standstill amid a sea of bodies, apparently unable to reach those who needed help. Twenty-five were hospitalized, and hundreds were injured, including a nine year old boy who was still in a medically-induced coma last night, according to his family.
The horrifying accounts from people who were stuck inside the overpacked stadium raise questions about how crowds like this form in the first place, and whether this dangerous situation could have been avoided. Are large-crowd catastrophes like this impossible-to-predict, once-in-a-generation occurrences—a combination of crowd psychology and terrible chance causing events to spin out of anyone’s control? Or can promoters and local officials take steps to prevent them from forming in the first place?
Paul Wertheimer, a longtime crowd-management and concert safety expert who runs Crowd Management Strategies, says that tragedies like the one that happened at Astroworld can absolutely be prevented. For decades, he has been doing crowd management trainings for a wide variety of clients, including fire and police departments and nightclub and zoo workers. He also donates his time to developing industry standards for safely handling general admission areas at festivals, best practices for safe moshing, and guidance for concertgoers on how to escape a forming “crowd crush.”
Wertheimer’s interest in crowd safety stems from a formative early experience. In 1979, he was working as a public information officer for the city of Cincinnati when a large crowd outside a Who concert at the city’s Riverfront Coliseum attempted to enter the venue after waiting for hours to get in. A rapid surge knocked over a number of fans, resulting in a brutal crush and the death of 11 fans by suffocation. Wertheimer, then 29, saw the news of the incident on television and immediately went down to the stadium. He never forgot what he saw.
Wertheimer served as chief of staff on a task force that Cincinnati’s mayor convened to investigate the incident. "The pounding of the waves was endless,” a man who had been stuck in the crowd told Wertheimer’s task force. "A wave swept me to the left and when I regained a stance I felt I was standing on someone. The helplessness and frustration of the moment sent a wave of panic through me. I screamed with all my strength that I was standing on someone. I couldn’t move. I could only scream."
Wertheimer has been a thorn in the side of concert promoters ever since—and an outspoken critic of the live music industry’s all-encompassing profit motive. He is often deployed as an expert witness during litigation following overcrowding tragedies at festivals, and has dedicated his career to raising awareness of the steps that concert promoters can take to stop disasters like Astroworld from taking place.
We spoke about protocols festivals can follow in order to prevent dangerous overcrowding like this from happening in the first place, his thoughts on a 56-page operations plan that was created by the event’s organizers, and the claim by Houston’s police chief that stopping the concert immediately could have caused a riot.
There's still a lot of information coming out about the Astroworld tragedy, but what was your initial reaction when you saw what had happened? I've seen this all before. And this was a preventable tragedy. Young people were put in an environment beyond their control, where there was a lack of crowd management and crowd monitoring.
A crowd craze is when people move towards something of perceived value, like in front of the stage. They want to be close to the artist, right? They want to touch the artist—that's part of the frenzy of it. That's what I'm looking at when I see this, and I have the same questions I always have: Let's see the risk assessment plan. Let's see the crowd management plan. Let's see the emergency plan.
What do you think of the version of Astroworld’s safety plan that was obtained by the press?
The crowd management plan for AstroWorld [I saw] doesn't even mention the stages in the audience in front of the stage. It doesn't mention crowd craze, crowd crush. It doesn’t mention moshing or stage diving. It's kind of a boilerplate plan that talks about mass evacuation and responding to mass casualty situations, but doesn't differentiate between different casualties. Because if you've got a mass drug casualty, it's different than a fire situation, which is different than a crowd crush. And I knew this would probably be the case, because I've seen so many of these reports.
Do you think there was a problem with the concert’s layout? The layout could have worked, but it was overcrowded. Festival seating [or general admission standing room] is the most dangerous and deadly crowd configuration in live entertainment concerts and festivals. It often plays a part in the tragedies that occur.
Festival seating came from the large festivals of the 60s and 70s—you put down a picnic basket or you just lay in the grass. And then it moved indoors. If you look at early [concert] videos on YouTube—there's one in particular I like, Moody Blues—everybody's sitting down. That's originally how it was done, but then they began to stand up. And promoters, of course, they already knew how lucrative this standing configuration was. Because they could pack the floor, and every festival seating ticket is the perfect ticket at the concert. You don't have to worry about obstructed view. Promoters don't have to pay for chairs, ushers—and that's why they like it. I'm not saying fans don't like it too. I like it when it's managed correctly.
Just because nothing happens [at a concert] doesn't mean the event was run correctly; it just means nothing happened. And Friday, like dominoes, everything went wrong.
When a concert’s crowd levels are becoming unsafe, whose job is it to make the real-time calls to get the situation under control, such as stopping the show early or forcing some kind of reconfiguration? Is there a specific position at a music festival? The crowd management plan [I saw] delegates only two people with the power to stop the show: [the executive producer and festival director]. What a bunch of BS. The fire marshal has the power. That's his or her responsibility on behalf of the Houston community. The police have the power. The building department has the power to stop a dangerous event. The idea that the promoter and the artist have more power than the police, more power than the fire marshal to control the safety of the crowd—are you kidding me? That's a joke.
Travis Scott’s performance continued mostly undeterred for some 40 minutes after people began to pass out from the crowd pressure. Houston’s police chief has defended this decision, suggesting that a more immediate stop to the show could have caused a riot. Is that a reasonable concern? That's a lie. That's the old lie about young people. [Promoters will say to me], “Oh no! You can’t regulate them. You don't understand youth culture. The fans can take care of themselves. They know what they're doing.” Then when something goes wrong, the promoter and the venue operator in the industry turns around and says, “These kids are crazy. I don't know why they do what they do. They're out of control.” They blame the victims. And that's one reason I got into this business: to counter that argument.
What strategies can promoters and public officials employ to prevent crowds like this from forming—or get things under control when they do? First of all, they should have had a proper risk assessment, a crowd management plan, and a thorough emergency plan to address any of the things that can happen. So that even if they take all the guidance and recommendations, and something still happens, they're prepared as best they can be. That's where it's all started. It didn't start when they identified the first body.
The crowd surge took well over an hour to develop into catastrophe. If a bonafide crowd safety manager had been monitoring the crowd, they could have stopped the problem early on.
When you're pulling people out of the front of the crowd, you already know you have an unsafe crowd. So if they were to stop it early on, before anyone was seriously injured, tell everybody to take a break—they could have prevented the situation, especially if they removed people and [just told them] to go somewhere else. “Here's a ticket for free beer, or a free sandwich.” Treat people with respect. You don't treat kids like animals and then blame them for something beyond their control when, in fact, the officials were responsible for creating the dangerous environment.
Had they stopped it early, even with all the missteps, there still would have been crowd surges and crowd craze. But the pressure and the danger would have been greatly reduced.
Emergency responders, including an ambulance, had trouble reaching victims through the density of the crowd. What would an effective evacuation procedure look like? You just don't let the density get so great. This is NFPA 101 [the National Fire Protection Association’s safety standards]. You don't let the density get so great that people can't leave on their own. And then emergency, medical, and law enforcement can enter the crowds to assist people in need.
There have been reports that some non-ticket holders may have gotten past the barriers, contributing to the overcrowding near the stage. They had 1,300 police and security people. And yet, they couldn't stop people from breaching the entrance. They couldn't stop people from getting in the crowd. What were they doing? What were the hundreds of private security doing? The mayor and promoter bragged about how many people they had, as if numbers just make people safe. What did they actually do? How did they make the place safer?
Is this kind of disaster something that can happen even if promoters and law enforcement do everything right? I’ve taken this question before: “Okay, big shot, so-called crowd expert. Mr. Wertheimer. What if, my client followed everything you said, and someone still got injured or killed? Then what?” And the answer to that was, Then at least you could have said you tried everything you reasonably could do to prevent this from happening. Because we don't live in a perfect world. The standard in litigation is not to make the event perfect—it's a really low bar. Did you try everything you could, knowing what you know as an expert in the field or professional, to prevent this from happening? That's all you have to say: “Look, Judge. We took reasonable efforts, and it still happened.”
Here, they can't say, “We reduced the density and people were still crushed.” I think they should be criminally charged. That’s why the scapegoat is turning into Travis. I'm not defending him. I just think he's not the only one that should be criminally investigated. All the other people I mentioned should be too, but the police also are probably culpable. There should be a parallel independent investigation going on.