A concert with thousands in attendance, many of whom were likely enjoying their first major outing since before the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns, turned deadly, claiming the lives of eight attendees and injuring dozens more. Those with expertise in promoting and staging such events say the casualties were completely avoidable and there were failures on several levels.
The Astroworld Festival, headlined by rapper Travis Scott, who founded the event, hosted as many as 50,000 people at NRG stadium according to published reports. But as the energy built while Scott wasperforming, a crowd surged toward the stage and things careened out of control. Attendees were trampled, some went into cardiac arrest, and others suffered broken bones. While a criminal investigation is moving forward and lawsuits have already been filed, more are expected.
But what happened to the concertgoers, who came to see Scott’s hip-hop act, should never have happened had precautions been taken to prevent the chaos.
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“From the start it’s just the lack of preparedness for this type of crowd response,” said Jeanine Taylor, president of JCEC PR, a Los Angeles based public relations and events management company. She explained that because of the pandemic, people may have been eager to attend a large concert event and for that reason, there should have been significantly more safety precautions taken into account.
“People are very anxious to be together and in the same space and have been deprived of this basic human joy for quite some time. I would have doubled up security,” said Taylor, whose company has managed events like the Tanqueray Soul Suite Tour, the Trumpet Awards (and also the inaugural BET Hip Hop Awards in 2006).
Taylor speculates that promoters may have cut corners in order to save money, which resulted ultimately in a loss of life, “and on top of that what makes this more of a stunning display of negligence is that they didn’t communicate with the artist what had transpired in real time, which was deplorable.”
A lawsuit alleges that Scott, along with fellow rapper Drake, who was a surprise guest and is also a defendant, incited the crowd, causing it to surge to the stage. Along with the eight deaths of people aged 14 to 27, stories of severe injuries continue to emerge, including a 9-year-old boy being put into a medically induced coma after he was knocked from his father’s shoulders in the melee.
Live Nation, the promoter of the show, and NRG Stadium both expressed their condolences to the victims of the disaster and say they will cooperate with the investigations of authorities. Scott has also said that he will cooperate with the investigation and has even pledged to pay for the funeral expenses of those killed. No criminal charges have been brought so far, although some in attendance insist that there should be.
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The outcome of any law enforcement probe cannot be speculated upon and it is far too early to determine specifics, but those who are experienced in crowd safety know what protocols should be taken to ensure an event remains under control.
Jim Digby, president and co-founder of the Event Safety Alliance, an organization of live event safety professionals who advocate for safe, well managed events, agrees that with audiences coming to something like Astroworld after a global pandemic, there would be a higher than normal fervency to be a part of such an activity.
“Each audience is unique and each show type is unique,” Digby explained. “So a reasoned practitioner of event production would evaluate the needs of a particular event. Each circumstance has its own profile for safety and what should be considered and evaluated and what measures should be put in place.
“Audiences at the moment are coming out of the COVID lockdown with the need to get out,” he continued. “A reasoned practitioner would be considering the potential that audiences have more energy than normal.”
But there is another factor to that which isn’t widely talked about. Since the pandemic has shut down many venues, a significant part of the event staff workforce has been lost. Digby estimates about 35 percent of event workers aren’t available now. This means it is now harder to find qualified professionals to staff events.
So the questions that are left are what instructions at NRG stadium was the existing security given, how many were in the security workforce to begin with, what show stop procedure was there for the artists and what clear line of communication was available from the venue to the artists.
“These are the part and parcel things we would evaluate,” Digby said, “and these are the types of things we would expect to see for any event.”
CNN reports that contingency plans were not in place, although plans were laid out for problems like an active shooter, severe weather or civil unrest, in a 56-page document that outlines those concerns. There is a risk assessment, but there was no apparent plan for what security would do in case of a crowd surge or mass casualties.
Taylor says what happened stems from a lack of preparedness for such a circumstance and added security would have been key. “If they neglected to plan for added security, there were probably other issues that were also overlooked,” she said. “I can’t speak definitively, but this type of crisis can certainly be circumvented with advanced planning. That happens because measures are put in place to keep people safe.”
But to her, there is liability that is to be shared between Live Nation the venue and others involved because of possible failures to observe preventative measures that are event industry norms.
“Coming out of a pandemic, these are the types of things that a company as seasoned as Live Nation would anticipate,” she said. “That might be harsh, but this is not just business. This is human lives.”