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Opinion: Astroworld disaster sounds just like Salt Lake in 1991

Three young people died during a crowd surge at an AC/DC concert at the Salt Palace. The story keeps repeating itself

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Travis Scott performs at Day 1 of the Astroworld Music Festival at NRG Park on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021, in Houston.

Travis Scott performs on the first day of the Astroworld Music Festival at NRG Park on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021, in Houston.

Amy Harris, Invision via Associated Press

The details are so eerily similar; the results so tragically alike. 

Have we learned nothing in all this time?

Last Friday night in Houston, crowds, perhaps much larger than the venue was designed to hold, surged toward a stage as the main event, popular rapper Travis Scott, took the stage. As people near the front were crushed — eight died and many more were injured — Scott kept performing, despite chants from some of those near the tragedy to stop the show.

That sounds almost word-for-word like what happened 30 years ago at the old Salt Palace arena in downtown Salt Lake City, as three people died at an AC/DC concert. Back then, the crush started as soon as the band burst into its iconic opening song “Thunderstruck.” People near the fallen began calling for the band to stop, but the music kept going. Some said it went on for 15 minutes. Others said it was more like 45. The band apparently had no idea what was happening.

After the music stopped and the casualties were removed, the band resumed playing. The website ultimateclassicrock.com said officials worried that even more people would suffer if the concert ended and concertgoers became angry.

Friday night, the New York Times reported that Houston Police Chief Troy Finner wanted Travis Scott to continue because he worried about riots.

Different place, different time, same script.

That was not an irrational police response, by the way. In 1992, when a concert headlining Metallica and Guns ‘N’ Roses was cut short in Montreal after a pyrotechnic accident, a riot ensued. Police ended up chasing people through the streets.  

As I followed coverage of last weekend’s tragedy, I realized the Salt Lake deaths have been largely forgotten. So, too, its lessons. Thirty years later, it’s just a footnote in a line of tragedies that seem to begin with The Who concert in Cincinnati in 1979 (11 dead) and that goes through Montreal, an ill-fated repeat of Woodstock in 1999 (several injured) and a Pearl Jam concert in Denmark in 2000 (eight dead), among others. All involved crowd surges.

In this type of tragedy, at least, history seems incapable of not repeating itself.

I was a reporter assigned to a team covering that long-ago AC/DC tragedy. A few weeks after it occurred, I fielded an anonymous tip from someone with knowledge of Salt Lake City ordinances. He told me the city had outlawed so-called “festival seating” after The Who tragedy, and yet the practice continued — a fact I later confirmed.

With festival seating, concertgoers may buy tickets allowing them to roam freely on the main floor of the arena. If the crowd isn’t controlled, or if strategic barriers aren’t in place, this can lead to dangerous surges, with people at the rear pushing toward the stage.

The old Salt Palace had a concert capacity of just under 14,000, and about 4,500 floor, or festival seating, tickets were sold that night.

As the book “Adolescents and Their Music,” edited by Jonathon S. Epstein, puts it, “A Salt Palace security guard reported that ‘someone just took a wrong turn and caused everyone to topple.’”

Crowd behavior is no mystery. It’s been studied and researched. In a paper most recently revised in 2002, retired researcher John Fruin wrote that crowds of about seven people per square meter become “almost a fluid mass.”

“It is difficult to describe the psychological and physiological pressures within crowds at maximum density,” he said. “When crowd density equals the plan area of the human body, individual control is lost, as one becomes an involuntary part of the mass.”

People at the rear are unaware of how people at the front are being crushed, so they keep pushing toward a desired goal. If someone falls, others are forced to fall atop them.

I have vivid memories of covering the Salt Lake disaster. It wasn’t fun. Two of the victims were 14. The other, a BYU student, was 19. One died that night. The others lingered a while. It was an unnecessary tragedy. Those three should be middle aged right now.

Some people blame a music culture that encourages irresponsible behavior. There is some truth to that. Crowds at such venues don’t respond to authority the same as do crowds at a symphony.

But trying to change this culture is a fool’s errand. The only solution is to change how such crowds are controlled and how they are seated.

The people in charge shouldn’t have to learn this lesson again and again, at the expense of lives. “Cities rethink festival seating,” an L.A. Times headline said after the Salt Lake tragedy. It sounds almost like a taunt today.

Somehow, the script has to change.