Wednesday, December 03, 2014

The Kids Weren't All Right

There was nothing remarkable about Dec. 3, 1979 — until after the sun went down.

Actually, I wasn't living in Cincinnati on that date. I was living in Arkansas, and my thoughts never went to Cincinnati that day, as far as I can recall. But my thoughts went to Cincinnati frequently in the days that followed.

On this night in 1979, 11 young people were crushed to death in a crowd surge for unreserved seats at Cincinnati's Riverfront Coliseum before a concert featuring The Who. In the end, it was the practice of "festival seating" — first come, first served for the best spots — at rock concerts in those days that was blamed for the tragedy.

It didn't help that access to the interior of the stadium was restricted as well. Some of the entries to the stadium were locked to prevent people from sneaking in. There were also rumors at the time that unions may have played a role in that.

The victims ranged in age from 15 to 27. The youngest would have turned 50 this year. The oldest would have been in her 60s and, presumably, about to retire. Entire lifetimes were taken from them that night — marriages, families, careers.

It isn't hard to imagine the chain of events that unfolded that night. Under the festival seating policy, you paid for your tickets, then you had two choices — if you wanted to be as close to the stage as possible. You could get to the stadium very early and stand in line at the gate, regardless of the weather conditions — and it was brutally cold that night, as I remember hearing in news reports — or you could make a dash for the door when it was opened, muscling your way past others and possibly (probably) provoking a fight.

I have always thought there was an element of the latter in the Cincinnati tragedy, but there was more.

The band was doing a sound check when the doors were opened, but not everyone realized what was happening. Many of the people who had been standing in line in the freezing weather thought the concert had already begun, and they rushed the place. They didn't want to miss anything.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, a lot of attention was paid to the festival seating policy — and it took a lot of blame, as it should have. The city banned the practice, a ban that remained in effect for 25 years.

But that didn't excuse the general handling of things that night by stadium personnel — who should have done anything in their power to prevent the stampede that occurred when the band's late sound check convinced some concertgoers that the show had already begun. That failure was like tossing a lit match on a pile of gasoline–soaked rags.

As is so often the case, some good came from the unspeakably bad that occurred that night. Tragedy has a way of shining a bright light on shortcomings that were hidden in the dark before — but, unfortunately, the light doesn't always shine in appropriate proportions.

In the case of Cincinnati, disproportionate attention was paid to the practice of festival seating. There can be little doubt that the practice played a role in what happened, but so, too, did inadequate crowd control.

It must have been an horrific experience. Many of the victims were knocked from their feet and literally trampled by the crowd. Those who survived being knocked to the concrete floor reported that they could not get to their feet and their cries for help went unheeded or ignored. Other victims reported being lifted from the ground by the force of the crowd.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, venues across the country changed their rules about festival seating with many switching to assigned seating, but that was a decision that was made by the venues alone. Cincinnati, perhaps more sensitive than other cities because of what happened there 35 years ago today, was the only U.S. municipality to ban the practice at any venue within the city limits. (That ban was lifted 10 years ago because it was preventing the city's venues from booking quality concerts.)

I've always felt that was an overreaction. Festival seating needed to be addressed, to be sure, but so did the issue of crowd control. After all, things didn't turn tragic until the fans heard the sound check and, thinking the concert had begun, surged toward still–closed doors, in the process trampling most of the victims.

Without adequately addressing the issue of crowd control, measures that were taken, however well intended, had the safety value of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.