If you were a Who fan in Cincinnati in the late 1970's it was the ticket you just absolutely had to have. In a little over a year, the Who had ridden a double-edged publicity juggernaut of their biggest-selling album to date, Who Are You, released in August, 1978, and the tragic death of drummer Keith Moon less than a month later, followed by the release of the documentary film The Kids Are Alright and a film version of Quadrophenia in 1979. Now, on December 3, 1979, they were coming to Cincinnati for the first time in four years, and you just had to be there! You had to be a part of it.
Of course, you wanted to be as close as you could to stage -- and you could be, too, if you were quick, and strong, and resourceful. This was going to be survival of the fittest, concert style. More than anyone could have imagined.
The people running Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati didn't really want to be in the concert business. They were sports people, and the coliseum, opened in September, 1975, was intended as a sports venue. The last thing they wanted was a bunch of Dirty Fucking Hippies™ contaminating their nice, clean arena. But the harsh reality was that minor league hockey and Cincinnati Bearcat basketball was not going to be able to cover the nut on the multi-million-dollar facility. They needed the concerts and other non-sport activities to pay the bills.
And so, however reluctantly, they became concert promoters.
By the late '70s, Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati had built a reputation for allowing crowds to run way out of control. Fans threw fireworks during a 1976 Yes concert there. The following year, a violent seat-seeking mob rushed a locked entrance before a performance by Led Zeppelin, resulting in 60 arrests and numerous injuries.
Blame for these incidents fell on the Coliseum's general-admission ticket policy, known as festival seating. The first-come, first-sit scheme was used at other rock arenas with relative safety, but in the Coliseum it seemed to bring on stampedes at the entrances. A tragedy seemed inevitable...
Entertainment Weekly EW.com: The Who's Nightmare Concert
Festival, or open, seating can mean an arrangement in which there are no seats, where concert goers stand for the performance. Alternatively, it can also mean simply no assigned seating, with the seats available on a first-come-first-served basis. The former, especially, became popular with concert promoters due to the ability to pack more people into a venue (and at the same time, make it difficult to get accurate crowd counts to enforce occupancy restrictions), and to get more of the most exuberant fans closest to the stage to gin up the excitement level. Riverfront Coliseum utilized both types.
But in either form, it could also be dangerous; injuries were common, and it seemed obvious that something very bad was going to happen if steps weren't taken to mitigate the danger. To that end, the city of Cincinnati appointed a task force to study the problem. In 1976, barely a year after the Coliseum opened, they issued their report, with a decidedly "free market" conclusion:
The Committee further recommends that the Riverfront Coliseum management be granted the necessary time to reduce "Festival Seating" events through an orderly process, rather than through some type of official control or regulation.
Report of the Public Safety Team
October 6, 1976.
Cincinnati Enquirer, '76 Study Recommended Coliseum Reduce 'Festival Seating'
In December, 1979, over three years after the Committee's report, the "orderly process" was still underway, apparently, though to an outside observer, it was difficult to detect anything that might be identified as 'in process'. Things looked pretty much as they had in 1976.
18,348 tickets were sold for the December 3 concert. More than 14,000 of those were for either festival admission to the open floor or unreserved seats. Only about 3,500 tickets were for reserved seats; everyone else was in land-rush mode. The doors were to open at 7:00 pm for the 8:00 concert. By 2:00 pm, the first of the eager crowd was already starting to gather on the plaza outside the Coliseum.
As concert time approached, the crowd swelled to near the sold-out capacity of the venue. Reports of exactly what happened are confused and sometimes contradictory. It seems likely that the Dirty Fucking Hippies™ in the crowd were, as accused later, consuming alcohol and other less-legal commodities. One eyewitness reported a group of males who were charging into the perimeter of the crowd and amusing themselves with the waves they sent rippling through it.
But it is also clear that the venue was understaffed and security -- 25 security people outnumbered over 700-to-one by the crowd outside -- was inadequate, and that, given the size of the gathering crowd, waiting until the last minute to open the doors represented poor judgment at best. And when the doors did open, not enough were opened to relieve the crush of the crowd pressing to get up close and personal with the Who.
At the front of the crowd, the concert-goers were feeling the press of people behind them. As the time for the doors to open approached, the crowd grew more and more impatient.
As 7 p.m. - the scheduled time for doors to open for the 8 p.m. show passed, restless fans, some of whom could hear the band's sound check inside, began pounding on the glass doors.
"It was almost like the (staff) inside looked panicked, like they didn't know what to do," Ellen says. "(It looked like) if they opened too many doors, they thought they were going to get trampled or something."
Then [Mark Simpson] saw a yellow jacket-clad coliseum employee approach the door he was standing in front of, unlock it and walk away.
"We're in trouble," he told his friend. "Take a deep breath."
Jammed into the railing, Simpson felt the breath being squeezed out of him. Then he shot through the doorway, fell down and scrambled to his feet, his chin bloodied and his shirt torn. Looking behind him, he could see people piling up in the doorway.
Cincinnati.com, Memories of Who concert tragedy linger
According to some witnesses, only two of the many entrance doors were opened as the crowd surged, some driven by the mistaken belief that a sound check going on inside was the concert beginning. People were pressed up against walls and railings and just crushed between people. The pressure forced breath from lungs. People fell and could not get up. There was no fighting it.
Jake Pauls, a safety consultant and member of the NFPA Technical Committee on Assembly Occupancies, has a simple explanation for the crowd dynamic in a festival seating area: "People caught in a crowd crush behave as a liquid. No individual can control his or her movement or assist others close by." Outsiders can do little to help victims in crowd crush situations.
American Association for Justice (via The Free Library), Won't get fooled again: overcrowding at concerts causes injury and death - despite industry denials. Don't be fooled: crowd crush cases turn on straightforward questions of foreseeability and duty of care.
Eleven people, seven males and four females ranging in age from 15 to 27, one of them the mother of two, died in the crowd crush, all of suffocation. Scores of people, as many as sixty by some reports, were injured. Despite the tragedy, the concert went on as scheduled. Officials claimed they feared a riot if they tried to cancel the performance. The members of the Who were reportedly not informed of the deaths until
the next day after the concert was well under way. [corrected based on contemporary newspaper accounts 4/15/10]
In the wake of the tragedy, potentially responsible parties, including the Coliseum management; concert promoter the Electric Factory of Philadelphia; the police; the city; and practically anyone else involved with the concert sought to evade responsibility. They blamed each other for shirking responsibilities; they blamed union rules preventing ushers from being used as ticket takers; they blamed the Dirty Fucking Hippies™ for drinking and smoking; they blamed the Who for attracting a bad crowd...
And the victims blamed them.
In the weeks after the concert, families of the dead and injured filed 33 lawsuits against The Who; the promoter; the city of Cincinnati; and coliseum management. The suits claimed negligence and sought more than $100 million in damages. All were settled out of court for a total of $2.1 million, plus an undisclosed sum for the family of one victim.
The Cincinnat Enquirer, Vigil to mark 30 years since Cincinnati Who concert tragedy
Cincinnati mayor Ken Blackwell (yes, that Ken Blackwell) formed a committee to study what had happened and make recommendations to the city on how to prevent a repeat.
Following the tragedy, the City of Cincinnati immediately established a citizen committee, The Task Force on Crowd Control and Safety, to research and recommend ways to make future concerts safe at Riverfront Coliseum and at other city venues.
The task force's report, Crowd Management, was submitted on July 8, 1980, and remains a landmark document in the field of crowd management. Praised as being concise and balanced, the report’s recommendations won the respect of public safety professionals from around the world. Many of the task force suggestions became incorporated into legislation and public assembly planning in the United States.
More than twenty years later, Crowd Management: The Report of the Task Force on Crowd Control and Safety, is still required reading for anyone aspiring to enter the crowd management field, and for those already plying the trade.
Crowd Management Strategies, About The Who Concert Tragedy Task Force Report
One of the first things the city of Cincinnati did in response to the tragedy was to ban festival seating. This is the part where my fingers just naturally want to type "and cities across the country followed suit," but the fact is, that didn't happen. The influence of the big-name artists and the concert promoters, refusing to play venues that didn't offer the festival arrangement, proved too great, and few major cities banned festival and open seating arrangements outright on any permanent basis. Even the city of Cincinnati, after first experimenting with an open-seating concert as a condition of drawing Bruce Springsteen to the city in 2000, finally bowed to the pressure and relented, withdrawing its ban in 2004, a quarter century after it was imposed.
What happened instead was regulation. If performers were going to insist on festival seating, it was going to be done in a way that protected the public safety. And the performers and promoters who insisted on it were going to bear the cost of making sure it was done as safely as possible.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), a private organization which develops model codes that are used by many states and cities in the United States, revised its Life Safety Code to deal more effectively with the issues of crowd control and festival seating based on the lessons learned in Cincinnati.
The code required, as a condition of obtaining a permit, that life safety evaluations be performed in advance of an event describing the nature of the event, the participants and attendees; plans for access and egress movement and identification of any potential crowd density problems; provision for medical emergencies; identification of fire hazards, and so on. It also required the personnel charged with controlling the crowd actually have some training in what they are supposed to be doing, and be present in adequate numbers"
CROWD MANAGERS - NFPA 101:31-2.1
In Class A assembly occupancies, there shall be trained Crowd Managers or Crowd Manager Supervisors at a ration of one Crowd Manager / Supervisor for every 250 occupants who shall have received approved training in crowd management techniques.
Finally, the cities took steps to make sure the concert promoters not only provided, but also shouldered the cost of adequate security and emergency medical personnel, and didn't externalize the expense to the taxpayers, as seen in this regulation laid out by the city of Portland, Oregon:
FESTIVAL (OPEN) SEATING
Administrative Rule Adopted by Portland Fire & Rescue Pursuant to Rule-Making Authority
- Festival seating for less than 500 patrons (3500 square feet of open-plan area without seats) is allowed without special provisions provided seating plans are submitted and approved and all provisions of the public assembly permit process are complied with.
- Festival seating for 500 or more patrons requires the following in addition to the provisions required under (1) above.
- Payment for the time for Fire Inspector(s) and Fire Bureau Paramedic(s) at time and one-half overtime rate, from one-half hour before the public is admitted until one-half hour after the performance ends. Payments must be made before a public assembly permit is issued. Payment is to be by check, made out to "Fire Prevention Division." This fee is authorized by Section 31.20.060 (f) of the Fire Code and is in addition to required Public Assembly Permit Fees.
- All tickets for patrons will be placed in festival seating must be clearly marked "festival seating."
- The hands of all those to be placed in festival seating shall be distinctly and consistently marked with an easily discernible symbol.
- Security personnel as approved by the Chief Fire Marshal or his designee shall be provided for crowd control.
- The following requirements are to be paid by the promoter:
- FIRE INSPECTOR/FIRE BUREAU PARAMEDICS
- 10,000 to 25,000 occupant load requires - one Fire Inspector and one Paramedic.
- 25,001 and up occupant load requires - two Fire Inspector and two Parmedics.
- PRIVATE EMS SERVICES
- 2,500 to 4,000 occupant load requires - one first aid station with minimum of two Red Cross trained personnel.
- 4,001 to 9,999 occupant load requires - one first aid station with one BLS or ALS with minimum of two paramedics.
- 10,000 to 20,000 occupant load requires - two aid stations with two ALS with minimum of four paramedics and two EMT’s.
- 20,001 to 30,000 occupant load requires - two aid stations with two ALS with minimum of four paramedics and six EMT’s.
- 30,001 and up occupant load requires - two aid stations with two ALS with minimum of six paramedics and eight EMT’s.
- All paramedics and EMT’s are to be Oregon certified
City of Portland, Oregon: Policies and Rules: Specific Occupancies: FIR-5.02 - Festival (Open) Seating
While the regulations put in place after the 1979 tragedy in Cincinnati didn't outlaw festival seating, they did serve to make the arrangement safer and, when something did go wrong, as it still does more frequently in festival seating situations than with conventional reserved seating, the rules that were implemented insure that properly-trained personnel are on hand to handle emergencies that arise.
And maybe it's just me, but I think I find that preferable to the "orderly process" of allowing people to continue to suffer injury -- and perhaps death -- until some huckster decides it's in his better interest to place public safety over profit.
Who Are You? From The Kids Are Alright.
And that, dear Kossacks, is where regulation comes from -- not from bored bureaucrats sitting in an office in Washington trying to think up ways to make life miserable and expensive for some innocent and unsuspecting businessman, but from real human suffering and tragedy brought about, all too often, by people who shirk what should be obvious responsibilities, who neglect basic diligence, who sacrifice safety for profit. They bring suffering on those who trust them and their products, and society adopts measures to make sure it never happens again. We have to force them, through regulation, to behave as they should have been behaving all along. That's how regulation came to be.
Previous installments of How Regulation came to be: