Houston’s sold-out Astroworld Festival was packed Friday night with about 50,000 people in another sign of a nation anxious to escape the pandemic gloom and let loose.
Then, just after 9 p.m., with rapper and event organizer Travis Scott performing, the densely packed crowd began pushing toward the illuminated stage, officials said.
At least eight people were killed and dozens injured in the ensuing crowd surge that, according to people at the concert, apparently overwhelmed event staff and medical personnel at NRG Park. The dead ranged in age from 14 to 27.
Paul Wertheimer, who founded the Crowd Management Strategies consulting firm and has campaigned for safer concert environments for decades, called what happened at the festival a crowd crush – a highly preventable tragedy, he said, as old as rock ‘n’ roll.
“Standing room environments – often called festival seating – are the most dangerous and deadly crowd configuration at live entertainment events,” he said.
“It forces people in a crowd to compete against each other for the best location or best area to be. And in crowd safety, that’s the last thing you want to occur. You want people working together.”
Wertheimer, 73, has been promoting crowd safety since 11 people were killed in a crush of thousands trying to enter Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati for a December 1979 Who concert.
Wertheimer said authorities often mischaracterize the actions of concert goers during a crush.
“When you try to save your own life or the lives of people around you, that’s not panic. That’s self preservation,” he said.
“When you’re being crushed by 5,000 people behind you and you’re up against people in front of you who are being crushed, you’re trying to save your life because you’ve been put into a position and an environment which is beyond your control.”
While many details surrounding the tragedy remain unclear, Wertheimer said crowd surges typically unfold over time. They don’t just happen. He said investigators will have to look at staffing levels as well as training.
“When authorities say a surge happened quickly, that’s not really how it works,” he said. “It takes time to build up density in a crowd. It will create the surge or the crowd crush or the crowd collapse, which occurred over time. Crowd safety experts know this.”
People rush through VIP entrance
The deadly Houston surge came hours after at least one person was injured when people rushed a VIP entrance on Friday afternoon, according to officials and video from the scene.
Two years ago, three people were trampled and injured at the same festival as many rushed to enter in 2019.
“We are certainly looking at all of the video footage,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner told CNN on Saturday, referring to the investigation into the cause of Friday night’s crush.
“We are talking to witnesses. We are talking to event organizers… We’re looking at everything.”
Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña said the crowd “for whatever reason began to push and surge towards the front of the stage, which caused the people in the front to be compressed.”
Travis Scott ‘absolutely devastated’
Some patients were in cardiac arrest, Peña said.
“People began to fall out, become unconscious,” Peña said at a news conference.
In a statement on Twitter Saturday morning, festival organizers said “our hearts are with the Astroworld Festival family tonight – especially those we lost and their loved ones,” and that they “are focused on supporting local officials however we can.”
Scott via Twitter said he is “absolutely devastated by what took place last night.”
“My prayers go out to the families and all those impacted by what happened at Astroworld Festival,” Scott’s statement reads.
“Houston PD has my total support as they continue to look into the tragic loss of life,” it continues. “I am committed to working together with the Houston community to heal and support the families in need. Thank you to Houston PD, Fire Department and NRG Park for their immediate response and support.”
‘Lifted out of their shoes’
John Fruin, a retired research engineer, wrote in a paper titled “The Causes and Prevention of Crowd Disasters,” that individual control is lost in a crush and “one becomes an involuntary part of the mass.”
“At occupancies of about 7 persons per square meter the crowd becomes almost a fluid mass. Shock waves can be propagated through the mass sufficient to lift people off of their feet and propel them distances of 3 m (10 ft) or more. People may be literally lifted out of their shoes, and have clothing torn off,” Fruin wrote in the paper originally presented in 1993 and revised in 2002.
“Intense crowd pressures, exacerbated by anxiety, make it difficult to breathe. The heat and thermal insulation of surrounding bodies cause some to be weakened and faint. Access to those who fall is impossible. Removal of those in distress can only be accomplished by lifting them up and passing them overhead to the exterior of the crowd.”
Fruin wrote that most crowd deaths result from “compressive asphyxia” rather than trampling. He described steel guardrails capable of withstanding a thousand pounds of pressure bent by the “domino effect” of the crowd force.
‘I felt like I couldn’t breathe’
Houston festival goers described being increasingly squeezed as Scott’s performance approached, as well as feeling crushed and seeing others pass out and scream in terror when the performance began.
“The crowd was squishing me so much that I felt like I couldn’t breathe,” Emily Munguia, 22, told CNN.
Another woman in the crowd, Madeline Eskins, ultimately passed out and was apparently crowd-surfed to safety, she wrote in an Instagram post.
As a timer on a screen counted down 30 minutes to Scott’s performance, “people compressed up against each other and were pushing forward and backward,” and it got progressively worse, Eskins told CNN Saturday.
“I was having constant pressure on my chest, constant pressure on my back. From the side, I was being squeezed,” she said.
Medical personnel were so overwhelmed with the injuries that audience members attempted to administer CPR.
Investigators will review how the venue was laid out and whether it had enough exit points, Peña said. They will also explore “what caused, one, the issue of the crowd surge, and two, what prevented people from being able to escape that situation,” he added.
Turner, at a news conference Saturday afternoon, said city officials were speaking with festival organizers, promoters, witnesses and others “to try to get a much better understanding of what took place, what went wrong, where were the missteps.”
CNN’s Jason Hanna, Maya Brown and Rosa Flores contributed to this report.