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Rock History 101: The Who Concert Disaster – 12/3/1979

on November 21, 2010, 12:14pm
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Of the 18,500 tickets made available for the concert, approximately 3, 500 were reserved seating. These ticket holders entered the venue via other entrances and were completely unaware of the situation unfolding outside. Police Lieutenant Dale Menkhaus failed to convince venue staff to open a second set of doors and was told that the venue did not have enough ticket-takers to open multiple sets of doors. Union rules prevented the venue from recruiting ushers to handle such duties and a fear of gate-crashers also contributed to the venue’s reluctance to accommodate with more entrances.When the band began to perform a late sound check, the crowd outside surged forward, fearing that the show had begun. From a broad bank of doors, only a few were open to allow entrance. As the doors would open, fans would rush forward to get in. When the doors would close, the crowd’s momentum continued forward crushing those in front.  An usher at Riverfront, Ray Schwertman, claimed the pushing began in earnest after a patron threw a bottle through one of the doors with “people…reaching through the hole in the door trying to come in.” Happening repeatedly, the ebb and flow of the crowd eventually overwhelmed the glass doors. At approximately 7:20 p.m. one set of doors succumbed to the crowd’s force and shattered while another set was thrown open.

As soon as the doors were opened, dozens of concertgoers were forced down to the ground by the crowd’s momentum. Attendee Ron Duristch said of the moment, “A wave swept me to the left and when I regained my stance I felt that I was standing on someone. I screamed with all my strength that I was standing on someone. I couldn’t move, I could only scream.” For over 15 minutes, the crowd forced its way into the venue. With no Riverfront security personnel in sight the police on hand, aware of the potential for disaster, were overwhelmed by the attendees. Candice Momper, another concertgoer, said of the scene, “There were people piled up. Off their feet. On the ground.  At least 20 of them. Some were unconscious.  The crowd couldn’t see the people were piled up till they got up there.  Then the crowd from behind just kept pushing so much that people kept walking over them.”

As ticket holders pushed forward the police could do very little other than force their way into the crowd and help stem the surge. After 25 minutes of chaos, the police began working their way into the crowd when they found the first of what would be eleven concert-goers lying on the ground, dead from compressive asphyxia. Officer Dave Grawe said, “The crowd jammed people up so tightly in front that they just passed out. They didn’t even fall down. They must have jammed up so tight that they didn’t get any air and just died.”

Despite 11 deaths, the majority of whom were under 21 and two who were mothers, and the 26 injured, the concert went on as scheduled. Fearing an overreaction by the crowd far worse than what had just happened if the promoters canceled the event, Cincinnati fire officials and the police instructed Riverfront to go on with the show. Those already seated with reserved tickets had no knowledge of the tragedy and the band was not told of what had happened until hours after the final encore. Lieutenant Menkhaus defended the decision: “The concert went on because, I think, it was in the best interest of all. Had we cancelled it, I’m sure there would have been more panic than ever.”

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