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."