• The San Juan Daily Star

‘No way out’: A sudden life-and-death struggle at a Houston concert

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner addresses media during a press conference in Houston, on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021.

By J. David Goodman and María Jiménez Moya

Panic and then desperation spread through the crowd of 50,000 mostly young people just as the popular hometown rapper they had come to see, Travis Scott, took the stage Friday night. It came like a wave, an unstoppable movement of bodies that could not be held back.

Some collapsed. Others fought for air. Concertgoers lifted up the unconscious bodies of friends and strangers and surfed them over the top of the crowd, hoping to send them to safety. Others shouted out for help with CPR and pleaded for the concert to stop.

It kept going.

In the end, eight people died, ranging in age from 14 to 27, according to city officials. Hundreds more were treated for injuries at a field hospital at the concert venue, the NRG Park in Houston, or at local hospitals. Among those treated at a hospital was a 10-year-old.

By Saturday, officials in Houston were at a loss to explain how the concert, part of the two-day Astroworld music festival organized by Live Nation and Scott, had transformed in an instant from a celebration to a struggle for life. So, too, were those who had been at the outdoor concert, who described a thrust of the crowd that would not let up as Scott took the stage around 9 p.m.

“It was like hell,” said Nick Johnson, 17, who still had his concert bracelet on as he spoke Saturday morning. “Everybody was just in the back, trying to rush to the front.”

“People were literally grabbing and pinching at my body trying to get up from the ground,” said Chris Leigh, 23, adding that he lost contact with his friends as he tried to make it out of the crowd. “I was fighting for my life; there was no way out.”

The event appeared to be one of the deadliest crowd-control disasters at a concert in the United States in many years. Similar episodes have occurred at venues around the world, during performances of all genres of music, including an electronic dance music festival Germany in 2010 at which 18 people were trapped and crushed, and a 1979 Who concert in Cincinnati where 11 people died as concertgoers rushed the entrance.

But the deaths in Houston had a particularly devastating impact at a time when the rapture of live events was being felt following months of pandemic restrictions.

“Young people with bright futures — those were the people who were at the event,” said Lina Hidalgo, the top executive for Harris County, which includes Houston.

She and other officials at an afternoon news conference struggled to explain what had taken place the night before. “Perhaps the plans were inadequate, perhaps the plans were good but they weren’t followed, perhaps it was something else entirely,” Hidalgo said, calling for an independent investigation.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

Questions raised by concertgoers and local officials included whether there had been adequate security and medical personnel on hand for the event, and whether the concert could have been shut down sooner.

Scott continued playing through his set of music, urging the crowd on at times, at other times pausing to acknowledge that something appeared to be wrong, including when an ambulance entered the crowd around 9:30 p.m.

Live Nation stopped the concert roughly 30 minutes earlier than planned, around 10:10 p.m. — 40 minutes after city officials said the “mass casualty event” had begun.

It was not clear how much of the chaos could be seen from the stage or when concert organizers became aware of a serious problem beyond the usual number of injuries that can take place at a large event. But Houston Police Chief Troy Finner said officials worried that cutting off the concert could make the situation worse.

“You cannot just close when you got 50,000 and over 50,000 individuals,” he said. “We have to worry about rioting, riots, when you have a group that’s that young.”

Investigators were looking into both the circumstances of the surging crowd — studying the numerous videos recorded from inside the venue and talking to concertgoers — and into what had caused eight people to die, including whether drugs played a part.

One security officer appeared to have been pricked in the neck as he tried to restrain someone at the concert, Finner said. The officer passed out but was revived using Narcan, which reverses the effects of an opioid overdose. “The medical staff did notice a prick that was similar to a prick that you would get if somebody was trying to inject,” he said.

Another element of the investigation, according to a county official, would be whether too many people had been in attendance. Earlier in the day, some had rushed the gate, and some people may have entered without tickets. At the news conference, officials said the concert venue had not been overcrowded.

“They could have had over 200,000 people in this venue; this venue was limited to 50,000,” said Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña. He added that people did not appear to have trouble at the exits; most of the issues appeared to be in the crowd itself.

After crowd-control issues at the Astroworld festival in 2019, officials and concert organizers increased the security this year, Hidalgo said, with more than 500 event security staff members, 91 armed private security officers and 76 Houston Police Department officers on hand.

“We had more security over there than we had at the World Series games,” the mayor said.

In a video of the concert, which was later taken down, Scott could be heard telling the crowd: “I want to see some rages. Who want to rage?” Moments later he said, “There’s an ambulance in the crowd, whoa, whoa, whoa,” apparently trying to calm the commotion.

For several seconds, the music appeared to stop. Scott looked toward the crowd and appeared to ask what was happening.

In the afternoon news conference, officials said some of the injured had been trampled, and Peña said that the third-party medical contractor for the event had become “quickly overwhelmed.” More than 60 city ambulances responded to the event, he said.

Sami Anjum, 28, served as a field medic for the Astroworld Music Festival. He said that concertgoers were “noncompliant” and made it hard to reach those in need. “Many bystanders offered to help or directed the field medics to take certain actions but they did not understand the volume, variety, velocity, and variability of the medical emergencies we were being faced with,” Anjum said in an email.

Extremely crowded conditions at a concert are not unheard of, and some at the concert said they did not realize that anyone had been seriously injured or killed until after they got home.

The most common cause of injury and death in crowds is compressive asphyxia, when people are pushed against one another so tightly that their airways become constricted, said Steve Adelman, a lawyer and the vice president of the Event Safety Alliance, an advocacy group. This happens most often during a “crowd crush,” when the audience is packed together so tightly that people cannot move, but it can also occur during a stampede.

Scott, in a statement, said that he was “absolutely devastated by what took place last night” and pledged to work with the investigation. A spokesperson for Live Nation said the event organizers would “provide as much information and assistance as possible to the local authorities.”

Scott, who is from Houston, has deep roots in the city and connections to Turner, who said he had worked with Scott and his mother over the years. The mayor, who gave Scott a key to the city in 2019, has celebrated the musician’s career and his foundation’s work on behalf of underserved communities in Houston. “This is a tragic case, and that’s why I want a very, very thorough investigation of this,” he said.

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