Sunday, November 10, 2002

The Who tragedy: Can it happen again?


Officials blamed festival seating. The truth is more complicated.

By Larry Nager
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Any concert by Bruce Springsteen and his legendary E Street Band is cause for excitement. But before the Boss thrashes out the first chord on his trademark Fender Telecaster Tuesday at U.S. Bank Arena, the event has made history.

For the first time in 23 years, "festival seating" will be permitted at the arena, formerly called Riverfront Coliseum. This type of general admission was banned in Cincinnati three weeks after the Dec. 3, 1979, Who concert where 11 young people died in a pre-concert crush on the plaza outside. It remains the worst concert disaster in American history.

To create an even more powerful concert experience, Mr. Springsteen has demanded that every venue on his 46-city world tour offer general admission seating, considered a cause in those deaths. In August, the arena was granted a one-time variance by Cincinnati Police.

Then and now
Then: The Who at Riverfront Coliseum. Now: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at U.S. Bank Arena.
Then: Four doors opened at 7:30 p.m. (30 minutes late) for 8 p.m. show. Now: 14 doors to open at 6 p.m. for 7:30 show.
Then: 14,770 festival seating tickets out of 18,348 total. Now: 1,800 festival seating tickets out of 16,800 total.
Then: Show sold out in 30 minutes. Now: Show is not a sell-out.
"Festival seating" is really "festival standing" - general admission access to the arena floor, where seats have been removed. It's first come, first served; those who wait in line longest and move fastest get closest.

U.S. Bank Arena manager Jim Moehring says there's no comparing the two events. "We're doing a very modified festival seating," he explains. "Times have changed. It's been many years, and a lot of people have learned how to deal with just about everything, as far as crowd control."

For instance:

Only 1,800 festival seating tickets were sold for the Springsteen show. The other 15,000 tickets are reserved seating. Compare that to the 14,770 festival and 3,578 reserved seats sold for the Who.

Heavy security outside. A detail of approximately 16 Cincinnati Police (one per 1,000 concertgoers) will patrol the plaza, with greater authority than they had in 1979.

Heavy security inside. Multiple checkpoints will keep gatecrashers off the arena floor, which will be patrolled by T-shirt security.

Festival ticket holders will have their own entrance.

The first 300 will be given wristbands gaining admission to "the pit," or the area closest to the stage that will be separated from the rest of the floor by barriers. The remaining 1,500 will receive different wristbands.

At least 14 doors will open at 6 p.m., 90 minutes before showtime. The night of the Who concert, no more than four doors opened 30 minutes before the show.

In 1979, an "us vs. them" attitude existed as the "generation gap" was in full force. Authorities saw Who fans as "the kids," most of them uncontrollable juvenile delinquents. A Springsteen audience is largely middle-aged and mellow, many of them older than the police patrolling the arena. Some will be the "kids" who went to the Who show, now 23 years older.

Nevertheless, festival seating remains a hotly emotional issue for dozens of surviving family members, hundreds of friends and thousands of concertgoers affected by the 11 deaths on that cold December night.

"It's an accident waiting to happen," says Ben Bowes, 50, who attended the 1979 concert. His younger brother Peter, 18, died that night. "Those festival seats (ticket holders) will still be arriving way before the show; 1,800 people can still compress the air out of somebody."

Paul Wertheimer, Cincinnati's public information officer back then, was part of the task force that later created guidelines for crowd control. Today he heads Crowd Management Strategies, a Chicago-based firm that consults on crowd safety. He says festival seating played a major role in the Who deaths. "It's what created the anxiety, what forced people to compete against each other, which is the worst thing that can happen in a crowd."

Yet even the most ardent festival-seating opponents admit there were other factors in play the night those 11 young people, ranging in age from 15 to 27, died.

Crowd control

The promoter, Philadelphia-based Electric Factory Concerts, put the 18,348 tickets on sale Sept. 28, 1979. The show sold out in 90 minutes, near-record speed in the days before the Internet, cell phones and speed-dialing.

It was the first American tour for the Who - Peter Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwhistle and new drummer Kenney Jones - since the 1978 death of original drummer Keith Moon. The 11-show Midwest tour was to promote the band's new feature film, Quadrophenia, based on the 1973 album of the same name. As a first-generation British Invasion band that had maintained credibility in the punk era, the Who had a massive, multigenerational following.

By Dec. 3, those fans had been waiting more than two months. It was a cold day, with a low of 18 degrees and a high barely above freezing, but the sun was out. Enquirer columnist Cliff Radel, then the pop music critic, recalls going early to chat with fans.

"Between noon and 2, there was a good-sized group of people already up there, and it was very calm, a very nice atmosphere. I remember people leaning against the wall, really sunning themselves."

It was a Monday and the first day of school in three weeks for many, because Cincinnati Public Schools had been closed because of budget problems. By 1:30, the crowd had grown to the point that Coliseum officials had called Cincinnati Police Lt. Dale Menkhaus, commander of Special Operations, to ask him to bring his 24-man detail down early.

There wasn't much he could do when he got there. His authority was limited by Riverfront Coliseum, which controlled everything, including when doors opened.

"All we could do was just monitor the crowd and try to keep hijinks down to a minimum, try to keep people from doing stupid things," he explains.

Officer Menkhaus, now a colonel in the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, was an old hand at concert security: He had worked every show at the Coliseum since it had opened in 1975.

But the Who, he says, was different.

"The group was so hot. At that point in time I don't recall, except for the Beatles, that there was that much hype and that much popularity. Just to get a ticket was a feat in itself."

CONCERTS BYPASS CINCINNATI
"When it gets to the point where the crowds are just too out of hand, then we'll definitely go to assigned seating. But for the fans that want to come to the show and act responsibly, it's their chance to buy a general admission ticket and get as close to the band as they possibly can. We like to have that happen."

That's how Creed's drummer, Scott Phillips, feels about festival seating. A lot of other bands agree.

In the last few years, more rock acts are insisting on limited festival seating at their shows. And they've been bypassing Cincinnati.

U2 skipped a local date last year. Smashing Pumpkins canceled a 1996 show when it couldn't get festival seating. That same year, a Bush/Goo Goo Dolls/No Doubt package opted for a show at Rupp Arena in Lexington, which allows festival seating.

Pearl Jam, the band that helped revive festival seating in the early '90s, also passed Cincinnati by. So did a Green Day/Blink 182 package. Had he not been granted a one-time variance, Bruce Springsteen would have done the same. Every venue on his 46-city world tour is offering festival seating.

There's no way to tell how many shows have been lost to other cities. Along with Rupp, about every other major venue in the region - Conseco Fieldhouse (Indianapolis), Schottenstein and Nationwide arenas (Columbus), Nutter Center (Dayton) - offers festival seating.

"Agents never even consider us for those tours. They would pass us by and we wouldn't even know about it," says U.S. Bank Arena director of marketing Morrella Raleigh.

- Larry Nager

Once school let out, the crowd started arriving in earnest. At 5 p.m., as the sun set, a full moon rose. Three hours before showtime, thousands of people fanned out from the Coliseum entrance, spilling across the plaza toward Riverfront Stadium.

"It was a cold night, there was a wind whipping off the river and that plaza level is wide open," recalls Jeff Waddle, 44, who had general admission tickets. He and his girlfriend arrived shortly after dark. "Everybody was bundled up. We got there and started standing in front of the doors and the crowd started to grow pretty quickly. It was pretty calm at that point. You could tell there was a lot of energy in the crowd."

Doors were supposed to open at 7 p.m., an hour before the show. But that was hardly set in stone, recalls Mr. Waddle, who had been to several Riverfront shows.

"You didn't really know when the doors were going to be open from concert to concert. It wasn't like at 7 sharp they were going to open those doors."

By 6:30, the crowd had swelled to more than 10,000. All were ticket holders who had passed police checkpoints outside the plaza.

"It was a good-sized crowd when we got there, but we got pretty close, 30, 40 feet from the front doors," recalls Mr. Waddle.

"What happens in a crowd like that is it tends to collect around you," Mr. Waddle said. "You're in the back of the crowd and pretty soon you're in the middle of the crowd. The closer to the doors opening, people start to get closer and closer together. Your personal space disappears. It was hot. There was steam coming off the crowd. Everybody had their heavy coats on and that made it even worse, and there was no way to take off your coat unless it gets ripped off of you, literally, which happened."

At 6:30, Officer Menkhaus saw the increasingly dangerous situation.

"I asked them to open all the doors," he recalls. The answer, he says grimly, was no. "Their concern initially was that they didn't have adequate ticket takers to man all the doors. The suggestion was made to use ushers. They said that violates the union contracts. The final request was, `Look, it's a sold-out concert, just open all the doors and let people come in.' "

But the Who, scheduled for a 6 p.m. soundcheck, was running late. The band got there at 6:20 and was starting its soundcheck about the time Officer Menkhaus called. Roger Daltrey had the flu and stayed at the hotel until nearer showtime.

Dick Wymann, Riverfront Coliseum director of publicity in the late '70s, said at the time that the decision to open doors rested with arena management, the concert promoter and the headliner.

Pushing and shoving

The crowd continued to build as 7 p.m. neared.

Renie Budai, 47, and her husband, Bill, had reserved seats, but they still got stuck in the crowd.

"When they turned the sound on for check, you could hear it outside the building and the crowd just went crazy and started shoving and pushing. It was just unbelievable. I was standing on my husband's work boots because there was nowhere for my feet."

That music was the trigger for the crowd surge, as the uncomfortable situation turned deadly.

"I stood up on a concrete bench just to get a look at the crowd," says Mr. Waddle, a University of Cincinnati student at the time who had written about the coliseum's concert safety problems for Clifton magazine.

Sitting at a Mount Lookout coffeehouse recently, he still winced at the memory. "You could really see the jostling, pushing; people getting knocked way over. Your feet are actually picked up off the ground and set back down several feet away. The energy is like a human wave. But if you were looking at the crowd on the ground, it seemed much calmer."

Ben Bowes was 27, a friend of Cal Levy, the local promoter for Electric Factory Concerts, and so was able to get three reserved tickets. He took a couple of married friends, a gift for the husband's birthday. They arrived between 5 and 5:30.

"The crowd just kept building and building," he recalls. "The press started when you could hear them doing warm-up. I remember us positioning the woman we were with between the two of us and just blocking with our hands on each other's shoulders, holding us apart, and we couldn't hold ourselves apart. We were just lifted off the ground and moved all over that little `V' area by the doors.

"We'd get moved closer to what looked like a huge pile of people and then the crowd would shift, and we'd move back a little ways."

`Not enough doors open'

Inside the Coliseum, it was business as usual, as the staff, unaware of any problems outside, prepared for another big rock show.

Larry Magid, head of Electric Factory, had come in from Philadelphia for the concert. He was having dinner inside the arena with Frank "Bo" Wood, a founder and owner of WEBN, the top rock radio station in the '70s. Mr. Wood recalls hearing "Who Are You?" opening the soundcheck after 6:30, which was unusually late, but he was unaware of any problems outside until the show began. Neither the Who, Mr. Magid, Mr. Levy nor any coliseum official at the time would comment for this story.

The surge continued for the next half hour, swelling back and forth, steadily getting tighter. At 7 p.m. the doors stayed closed and wouldn't open for another half hour, according to reports.

Then, with almost 18,000 people pushing, shoving, screaming to get inside, no more than four of the 16 entrance doors opened. "That is still in debate," says Officer Menkhaus. "But the general consensus was two (doors)."

When Officer Menkhaus is asked to pick one reason why 11 people died that night, he doesn't hesitate: "Not enough doors open."

Concertgoers agree.

"I just don't think the doors were opened in time and there weren't enough doors open," says Everybody's Records owner Marilyn Kirby, who had reserved seats for the show and took her two young sons, Bryan, 4, and Jimi, 7, a rabid Who fan.

She blames festival seating, too. "We saw the mob and we said, `There's no reason for us to get into that mob, because we have reserved seats.' So we backed off until everybody got in."

Opening the doors may have been the final link in the chain reaction because that got the crowd moving. But the doors did not remain open, and the moving crowd had nowhere to go, creating the final, deadly crush.

"What was even more insane (than not enough doors being opened)," recalls Ms. Budai, "is with the crowd that they had and the way they were pushing and shoving, (Coliseum security guards) were trying to stop and hand search everybody that was going through the turnstiles, and I mean everybody."

To keep the lobby clear, security repeatedly closed the doors until those inside were searched for alcohol.

"When they opened one door, everything shifted, and then that door closed and they opened a second door and that door closed and then they opened both of them and somewhere around there we just basically were in the right place at the right time and got squeezed through the doors," recalls Mr. Bowes.

By 7:54, police began finding the bodies, only 15 feet from the doors. Those who had come late hoping to miss the mob scene didn't have to be told that something had gone wrong.

"I remember getting there just a little bit late and having this really eerie feeling that something had happened," says Janeen Coyle, a 19-year-old fledgling disc jockey on Q102 in 1979. "I saw things on the plaza level, things were disheveled. It just looked messy, things thrown everywhere."

"We walked past the big pile of coats and hats and shoes," says Mr. Waddle. "It had been pretty rough in the crowd, but it looked like everybody got inside. It gave me a strange, unsettling feeling. I didn't see any bodies, but to see that pile of shoes and everything. I knew some people had really been in a lot of trauma."

Beyond those feelings, most in the crowd were unaware anything had happened. Mr. Bowes repeatedly tried to meet his brother at their agreed-upon spot, but the scene was pretty chaotic and he wasn't too worried when Peter didn't show up.

In bed with a cold, Mr. Wertheimer learned of the deaths just after 8 p.m., from a news bulletin by the Channel 9 TV news director Al Schottelkotte. Unshaven, he threw on clothes and headed to the Coliseum.

"It was still all very disorienting, there was piles of clothes by the entrance door of the Coliseum. I remember there were still people being worked on or treated outside of the Coliseum (by) emergency medical people there. Inside, the only first aid room I saw was totally packed, door shut. I went in there for a second and then stuck my head into the arena, the show was going on."

When the first few bodies showed no signs of visible trauma, drug overdoses were assumed as the cause of death. When more bodies were discovered, it was feared that poisoned drugs were going around, possibly Quaaludes, a mild depressant that was the popular pill of the day.

"I heard the fire chief and some of the others discussing whether they should cancel the show or not because they thought maybe there were bad drugs," says Mr. Wertheimer. "Officials were afraid that people in need of help might be inside, on the floor, dying. But they weren't sure what the reaction would be, and by then, as I recollect, some information came in from the emergency medical that these people had other problems that weren't drug related, that maybe there was a crush involved, asphyxiation."

Stopping the show might cause a riot, so neither the Who nor the crowd was told, although some in the audience wondered about the flashing lights on the plaza.

Mr. Radel was reviewing the show from the pressroom when he was summoned to the Enquirer's private box by publisher Bill Keating, who told him deaths were being reported outside. Mr. Radel stayed to see if the Who referred to the disaster during the show. They didn't. Mr. Radel also made his way to the plaza.

"I remember opening that door and seeing those bodies out there, those bodies and the shoes," he says. The full moon and the glowing lamps on the plaza gave everything a ghostly aura. "It had a very film noir look about it. Outside, it was black and white; inside it was all these garish colors of the show."

For Officer Menkhaus, the memory remains. "Dead bodies - seeing that many people in one location; between the dead, the injured, it's something that you never forget. Well over 30 people were transported to the hospital. Every ambulance in the city was in one location."

Most concertgoers didn't learn about the disaster until they turned on car radios. Others found out from hysterical parents when they arrived home.

Mr. Bowes thought something was strange when he left the arena after an abbreviated encore by the Who (the band had been told before returning to the stage).

"I remember when we were leaving, coming out the doors and just seeing this huge pile of shoes. At that point there were no bodies laying around. I remember all the flashing lights but we kind of just walked through it," he recalls.

He thought it odd that there were dozens of cars with parents in them lining Broadway near the Coliseum, but he never imagined the reason. "You couldn't even consider that you'd go to a concert and not come home," he says.

He found out when he flipped the radio on after driving his friends back to their home in Pleasant Ridge. That's when he began fearing the worst about not seeing his brother that night.

The dead were a cross-section of Cincinnati rock fans. Four of the 11 were female, six were teenagers, two were wives and young mothers.

Within weeks, festival seating was banned and other concert rules put into effect, including granting police the authority to order Coliseum doors opened. Inundated with lawsuits, Electric Factory closed its local offices. Victims' families and the injured filed 32 lawsuits; all were settled out of court.

A crowd safety task force, headed by former Cincinnati Safety Director Henry Sandman, was convened, and eight months later issued a report that remains the industry standard.

Outside Cincinnati, festival seating has remained a common arena practice without a repeat of the Who disaster.

"I think all these things came together in one very unlucky cosmic moment - festival seating, the Who warming up inside clearly audible from outside, a colder night, people were sort of clustered, the doors opened out as all doors did (to prevent a crush from the inside in case of fire). And nobody was sensitized to the fact that it could happen. That was the first time that (a deadly crush from the outside) ever happened," says WEBN's Mr. Wood, who served on the task force.

Concert security had been focused inside the venue. "That was the biggest revelation out of Cincinnati, that it's possible those kind of things could happen outside the doors. It really emphasized the fact that you have to deal with the crowds outside the building," says Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the concert industry trade journal PollStar.

Most agree that something similar could happen again. But probably not in Cincinnati.

"I'm coming down for the (Springsteen) concert, but I don't anticipate any problems," says Mr. Wertheimer. "It's a historic event for me. It's not an issue of safety, that I think something's going to happen. How could it? They'd be idiots."

Cincinnati Police Lt. Gary Brown, commander of the Event Planning Unit that will be in charge Tuesday night, anticipates the biggest problem for the Springsteen show will be parking, because of construction of the Great American Ball Park a few yards away.

To prepare for the show, he traveled to the Springsteen concert in Chicago. He also saw a couple of shows by hard-rock band Tool - wild, crowd-surfing, moshing rock concerts, he says. "The Springsteen concert is a different animal. It's an older crowd."

But Officer Brown says the biggest difference between 1979 and 2002 is that, if his detail sees a dangerous situation in the making, he can prevent it. "Back then, the facility was in charge. Now, the city is in charge."

"That night not only changed the way this venue does business, but it changed the way almost every concert venue in America does business," says U.S. Bank Arena manager Moehring. "Things were just completely different back then."

E-mail lnager@enquirer.com




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