How Does a Tragedy Like the Astroworld Festival Mass Casualty Happen?
A music festival ended in chaos and tragedy this weekend. At the 2021 Astroworld Festival in Houston, Texas, eight people died and hundreds more were injured in a chaotic crowd surge during headliner Travis Scott’s performance on Friday night, as the New York Times reports.
Right now, little is known for certain about what exactly happened, and an official investigation is still in its early stages. Media reports cover widely varied firsthand accounts, statements from authorities, and speculations on the multitude of contributing factors that led to the loss of life, from potential event planning failures to unruly crowd members that may have stampeded the stage.
Some key questions being posed by Houston officials, bereaved loved ones, concert attendees, and investigators are whether the event had enough staffers handling security and medical care, whether the venue was over capacity, how facilitators may have failed to control the crowd, and why concert promoter Live Nation (and Scott) let the show go on for so long (about 40 minutes) after the problems started, the New York Times reports. (Lawsuits have been filed against the festival organizers including Scott and Live Nation, NPR reports.)
What’s clear is that individuals were physically overpowered as the crowd of at least 50,000 got out of control, resulting in what’s called a crowd crush or crowd surge—the overwhelming physical force generated by a large crowd moving in a certain direction. While all the causes of injury and death are not clear yet, there are likely several. At least some people sustained injuries from falling over and being trampled on the ground, per the Times. Some people, officials said, appeared to pass out due to a heart attack or other medical event, according to NPR. Meanwhile, lawyer Steve Adelman, vice president of the Event Safety Alliance, an advocacy organization, told the Times that compressive asphyxia is the most common cause of injury and death in crowds. This occurs when people in a crowd crush or stampede are packed together so densely that their airways are constricted. People have trouble getting enough oxygen, fall unconscious, and collapse. Some firsthand accounts shared on social media describe a crowd crush of this sort, as NPR reports.
The Astroworld Festival tragedy is not the first of its kind—many disasters of a similar nature have occurred among large and uncontrolled crowds before, as Reuters reports. “History has taught us that catastrophic things can happen when large groups of people assemble,” paramedic Ginger Locke, associate professor of EMS (emergency medical services) professions at Austin Community College and host of the Medic Mindset podcast, has previously told SELF.
In addition to the many variables on the ground that create unsafe conditions to begin with, once an uncertain, high-stress, or risky situation breaks out it can trigger people’s stress responses, causing panic and further escalating the situation as people try to get to safety. And when you have a crowd of thousands of people whose stress responses are collectively activated, it’s easy for the situation to spiral out of control and become increasingly dangerous. “This is where you see unnecessary chaos,” Locke says. “People pushing and clawing in crowds, people getting stepped on or trampled.”