On Nov. 5, 2021, fans of rapper Travis Scott poured into Houston's NRG Park for the third annual Astroworld Festival. For many, it was a dream come true — but the dream quickly turned into a nightmare. As Scott took to the stage, a massive crowd surged toward the stage, crushing nine concertgoers to death and seriously injuring many others. Those killed range in age from just 14 years old to 27. A 9-year-old who was injured at the show remains in a medically induced coma.
The Astroworld Festival is far from the first crowded concert to turn fatal. In 1979, 11 fans of legendary rock band The Who were caught up and killed as a mass of people rushed the stage. In 1991, three teens died in a similar incident at a Salt Lake City AC/DC show, and in 2019, five people were killed at a concert starring Algerian rapper Soolking. These crowd disasters, sadly, are more frequent — and deadlier — at major pilgrimages and sporting events.
But, experts say, they don't have to be.
Crowd Management Is Like Flying a Jet
"I love live music. I love live events. That why I got involved," says Steven Allen, a professional safety and security consultant and the founder of the U.K. crowd management agency Crowd Safety.
Allen likens crowd management at a concert to piloting a passenger jet. Passengers on any commercial airline trust that the company has safety regulations in place: autopilot capability, backup engines, floatation devices and emergency landing gear. But, in accordance with Murphy's law, anything that can go wrong eventually will. In a mass failure situation, "that's when you have a team on that flight deck," Allen says. "And for me, that's your show stop team."
As the name suggests, the show stop team's job is to stop the show. When they give the signal, the house lights come up, filling the space with pure, white light. The artist should then instruct the crowd that there has been an incident, not to panic, and to proceed to the exits. It's a strategy designed to let the often-inebriated crowd know, unambiguously, that the party is over.
The tricky part is knowing when — or whether — to send the show stop signal.
When the Party's Over
One of the most important components of the job, according to Allen, is being able to spot a potentially dangerous situation when it arises. Part of that involves familiarity with different types of concert etiquette — knowing, for example, that you're more likely to encounter a mosh pit at a punk show than a Dolly Parton concert. Then, there's recognizing that even in rowdy crowds, not every mosh pit is a death trap.
"They've got their own rules, and they know what they're doing," Allen says, "What you're looking for is that sign of distress in their faces."
When a crowd starts to move in a frenzy, things can quickly take a turn for the dangerous. The force of a rushing crowd can exceed 1,000 pounds (453.5 kilograms), great enough to bend steel. Folks trapped in the middle of the crush can have the air forced from their lungs, or, if they're unlucky enough to be knocked to the ground, can be trampled underfoot by the crowd.
In the early 1990s, crowd safety researcher John J. Fruin developed an easy acronym for the four elements to monitor in a potential crowd disaster situation: FIST.
- Information upon which the crowd acts
- Space involved
- Time, or the duration of the incident
If one of these elements seems off — say, a person falls and doesn't get back up — the show should stop, Fruin wrote.
As a result, the security team must be constantly scanning for people making involuntary movements, or adopting uncomfortable body language. People climbing — or trying to — over the front stage barrier nonstop is another sure sign to stop the show. The biggest danger, according to Allen, is crowd collapse, when a group of people falls down and the people behind them continue to surge forward.
"Thankfully, it's a rare occurrence," he says, "The problem is, when it does happen, it can be catastrophic." All of these occurred at Astroworld.
What Went Wrong at Astroworld?
So how did the recent Travis Scott concert turn deadly?
"My immediate thought is that there was a showstopper issue," says Allen. As the show went on, the dense, excited crowd grew increasingly panicked. Video footage shows one concertgoer climbing up the stage scaffolding and attempting to notify a camera operator that "people are f-ing dying." However, Scott performed his entire set; the production team never stopped the show. From the time security declared a "mass casualty event" until the concert actually ended, a full 37 minutes elapsed.
Astroworld's 56-page safety plan did not address a deadly crowd surge situation, an investigation by Houston Public Media subsequently revealed. The document outlined safety procedures for several different scenarios — from lost persons to bad weather to a mass shooting event — but the potential for crowd crush stood out as a noticeable omission.
"That's all you need to know about the plan," crowd safety expert Paul Wertheimer, who reviewed the document after the fact, told Houston Public Media. "It didn't even address the crowd."
Live Nation, the concert's promoter, indicated in a recent statement that it had released all surveillance footage to the Houston police and fire departments, who are currently investigating the incident. The company faces multiple lawsuits in the wake of the disaster, and Scott himself is being sued as well. Scott also canceled his appearance at the Las Vegas Festival Grounds festival Nov. 13. He was scheduled to headline.
In the end, Allen says, the real tragedy is that this catastrophe could have been avoided with proper preparation. "Concerts can be managed safely. They can be run safely," he says, "It's about everyone accepting and understanding, you know, that this can actually happen."