Too Close to the Madding Crowd

A Freakonomics piece from Jeff Wise this week about the crowd stampede phenomenon caught my eye and brought back some difficult memories. 

On December 3, 1979, my rock and roll dad took me (13) and my two younger brothers (10, 8) to the Who concert at Riverfront Coliseum. We went out to Chinese food before the show, and arrived not long before the concert was starting. We had reserved seats, and used a less-popular side entrance. Nothing bad happened to us, and we enjoyed the (ultra-loud) show, which was halted several times by the fire marshal because of the density and intensity of the crowd standing near the stage. A physician friend of ours was with us; a few songs into the show, his beeper went off and he disappeared for a while. When he returned, he whispered something in my father's ear. Only after the show did we kids learn that eleven people had been trampled to death at the Coliseum's main entrance. One of them was an 18 year-old from our local school.

The details are gruesome and heartbreaking. Needless to say, the tragedy was entirely preventable. The band did a late sound check; the arena opened the doors way too late, etc. There are plenty of simple lessons to take from this and other similar events. 

It's shocking, then, that humans have actually gotten worse at preventing such disasters. Jeff Wise writes:

For years...engineers and psychologists have been working to model crowd behavior and to figure out how to design spaces so that stampedes are prevented. Yet every year lethal stampedes become more common. In the '80s, there were 24 incidents reported in the media; in the '90s,  62; in the 2000s, up to 2007, there were 129.

I was never in any physical danger that night in 1979, but the event was traumatic on a certain level for the entire city, and of course for anyone who'd been at the show. Since that night, the lethal potential of a festival crowd has never been far from my consciousness. Several times I've been somewhere in the middle of a large throng and thought, "I'm really not safe here." 


Jump to comments
Presented by

David Shenk is a writer on genetics, talent and intelligence. He is the author of Data Smog, The Forgetting, and most recently, The Genius In All of Us. More

David Shenk is the author of six books, including Data Smog ("indispensable"—The New York Times), The Immortal Game ("superb"—The Wall Street Journal), and the bestselling The Forgetting ("a remarkable addition to the literature of the science of the mind."—The Los Angeles Times ). He has contributed to National Geographic, Slate, The New York Times, Gourmet, Harper's, The New Yorker, The American Scholar, and National Public Radio. Shenk's work inspired the Emmy-award winning PBS documentary The Forgetting and was featured in the Oscar-nominated feature Away From Her. His latest book, The Genius In All Of Us, was published in March 2010. Shenk has advised the President's Council on Bioethics and is a popular speaker. Click here to follow him on Twitter.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.


Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.


Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.


Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.


The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air



More in Entertainment

From This Author

Just In