It happened at a music festival in Houston, a soccer stadium in England, during a hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, in a Chicago nightclub, and countless other gatherings: Large crowds surge toward exits, onto playing fields or press up against a stage with such force that people are literally squeezed to death.
And it has happened again, during Halloween festivities in the South Korean capital Seoul, where a crowd pushed forward, the narrow street they were on acting as a vice, leaving at least 149 people dead and more than 150 more injured.
Muslim pilgrims pray at the Kaaba, in the Mecca, Saudi Arabia, where hundreds of people have previously been killed in a deadly stampede.Credit:AP
The risk of such tragic accidents, which receded when venues closed and people stayed home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, has returned.
To be sure, most events where large crowds gather happen without injury or death, with fans coming and going without incident. But those that went horribly wrong shared some common traits. Here is a look at why that happens:
How do people die at these events?
While movies that show crowds desperately try to flee suggest getting trampled might be the cause of most of the deaths, the reality is most people who die in a crowd surge are suffocated.
What can’t be seen are forces so strong that they can bend steel. That means something as simple as drawing breath becomes impossible. People die standing up and those who fall die because the bodies on top of them exert such pressure that breathing becomes impossible.
Stewards and supporters tend and care for wounded supporters on the field at Hillsborough Stadium in 1989.Credit:AP
“As people struggle to get up, arms and legs get twisted together. Blood supply starts to be reduced to the brain,” G. Keith Still, a visiting professor of crowd science at the University of Suffolk in England, told NPR after the Astroworld crowd surge in Houston last November. “It takes 30 seconds before you lose consciousness, and around about six minutes, you’re into compressive or restrictive asphyxia. That’s a generally the attributed cause of death — not crushing, but suffocation.”
What is the experience of being swept into a crush of people like?
Survivors tell stories of gasping for breath, being pushed deeper under what feels like an avalanche of flesh as others, desperate to escape, climb over them. Of being pinned against doors that won’t open and fences that won’t give.
“Survivors described being gradually compressed, unable to move, their heads ‘locked between arms and shoulders … faces gasping in panic,’” according to a report after a human crush in 1989 at the Hillsborough soccer stadium in Sheffield, England, led to the death of nearly 100 Liverpool fans. “They were aware that people were dying and they were helpless to save themselves.”
What triggers such events?
At a Chicago nightclub in 2003, a crowd surge began after security guards used pepper spray to break up a fight. Twenty-one people died in the resulting crowd surge. And this month in Indonesia, 131 people were killed when tear gas was fired into a half-locked stadium, triggering a crush at the exits.
In Nepal in 1988, it was a sudden downpour that sent soccer fans rushing toward locked stadium exits, leading to the deaths of 93 fans. In the latest incident in South Korea, some news outlets reported that the crush occurred after a large number of people rushed to a bar after hearing that an unidentified celebrity was there.
Soccer fans carry an injured man following clashes during a soccer match at Kanjuruhan Stadium in Malang, East Java, Indonesia, Saturday, October 1, 2022.Credit:AP
But Still, the British professor who has testified as an expert witness in court cases involving crowds, pointed to a variation of the age-old example of someone shouting “Fire” in a crowded movie theater. He told the AP last year that what lights the fuse of such a rush for safety in the US, more than in any other country, is the sound of someone shouting: “He has a gun!”
What role did the pandemic play?
Stadiums are filling up again. During the pandemic, as games went forward, teams took some creative steps to make things look somewhat normal. Cardboard figures of fans were placed in some of the seats and crowd noise was piped in — a sports version of a comedy show laugh track.
Now, though, the crowds are back, and the danger has returned.
“As soon as you add people into the mix, there will always be a risk,” Steve Allen of Crowd Safety, a UK-based consultancy engaged in major events around the world, told the AP in 2021.
Here are details of some of the worst stampedes over the last three decades:
April 1989: Ninety-six people are killed and at least 200 injured in Britain’s worst sports disaster after a crowd surge crushed fans against barriers at the English FA Cup semi-final match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield.
July 1990: Inside Saudi Arabia’s al-Muaissem tunnel near the Muslim holy city of Mecca, 1426 pilgrims are crushed to death during Eid al-Adha, Islam’s most important feast, at the end of the annual haj pilgrimage.
May 1994: A stampede near Jamarat Bridge in Saudi Arabia during the haj kills 270 in the area where pilgrims hurl stones at piles of rocks symbolising the devil.
April 1998: One hundred and nineteen Muslim pilgrims are crushed to death during the haj in Saudi Arabia.
May 2001: In Ghana, at least 126 people are killed in a stampede at Accra’s main soccer stadium when police fire tear gas at rioting fans in one of Africa’s worst soccer disasters.
Feb 2004: A stampede kills 251 Muslim pilgrims in Saudi Arabia near Jamarat Bridge during the haj ritual stoning of the devil.
Jan 2005: At least 265 Hindu pilgrims are killed in a crush near a remote temple in India’s Maharashtra state.
Aug 2005: At least 1005 people die in Iraq when Shi’ites stampede off a bridge over the Tigris river in Baghdad, panicked by rumours of a suicide bomber in the crowd.
Jan 2006: Three hundred and sixty-two Muslim pilgrims are crushed to death at the eastern entrance of the Jamarat Bridge when pilgrims jostle to perform the haj stoning ritual.
Aug 2008: Rumours of a landslide trigger a stampede by pilgrims in India at the Naina Devi temple in Himachal Pradesh state. At least 145 people die and more than 100 are injured.
Sept 2008: In India, 147 people are killed in a stampede at the Chamunda temple, near the historic western town of Jodhpur.
July 2010: A stampede kills 19 people and injures 342 when people push through a tunnel at the Love Parade techno music festival in Duisburg, Germany.
Nov 2010: A stampede on a bridge in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, kills at least 350 people after thousands panic on the last day of a water festival.
Jan 2013: More than 230 people die after a fire breaks out at a nightclub in the southern Brazilian college town of Santa Maria, and a stampede crushes some of the victims and keeps others from fleeing the fumes and flames.
Oct 2013: Devotees crossing a long, concrete bridge towards a temple in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh panic when some railings break, triggering a stampede that kills 115.
Sept 2015: At least 717 Muslim pilgrims are killed and 863 injured in a crush at the haj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia.
April 2021: At least 44 people are crushed to death at an overcrowded religious bonfire festival in Israel in what medics said was a stampede.
Nov 2021: At least nine people are killed and scores injured in a crush at the opening night of rapper Travis Scott’s Astroworld music festival in Houston, Texas, triggered by a surge of fans pushing toward the stage.
Jan 2022: At least 12 Hindu pilgrims died and more than a dozen are injured in a stampede at the Mata Vaishno Devi shrine in Kashmir during events to mark the New Year.
Jan 2022: A stampede at a church on the outskirts of Liberia’s capital Monrovia killed 29 people during an all-night Christian worship event.
May 2022: At least 31 people die during a stampede at a church in Nigeria’s southern Rivers state, after people who turned up to receive food at the church broke through a gate.
Oct 2022: A stampede at a soccer stadium in Indonesia kills at least 125 people and injures more than 320 after police sought to quell violence on the pitch, authorities said.
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