There once was a note, pure and easy...
December 2, 2019 11:22 PM   Subscribe

Forty years ago today, 11 young people lost their lives outside Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati waiting to see The Who. The Who Tragedy, as it was known, was one of the worse incidents in the history of rock and the fallout resulted in wide-ranging changes to the concert industry that reverberate to this day.

[NB, many of these links are graphic and show dead and injured]

In 1979 The Who was one of the biggest bands in the world and their tour to support their new album, Who Are You- their first since the death of their drummer Keith Moon and their first American tour in 3 years-was highly anticipated.

For the Cincinnati show, the 18,348 tickets sold out in 90 minutes (and this was back when you had to go physically buy the tickets-legions of kids skipped school on a September day to rush the Ticketron counter at the local mall).

Most of the tickets for the Cincinnati show were general admission-festival seating-and rabid fans began arriving as early as 1 pm on that cold December day. By 3 pm police had arrived to control the crowd, but as Dale Menkhaus of the Cincinnati Police said, "By and large the crowd was not as rambunctious as many other crowds tended to be, but there was definitely a very strong feeling of excitement and anticipation."

But the crowds kept coming. By 6 pm the crowd was becoming tighter and tighter and by 7 pm nearly 7000 fans were jammed into a small space on the south west plaza in front of the doors. By 7:30 there were 12,000. Menkaus, now very concerned with the crowd, desperately asked the Colesum's management to open the all of the doors, but they said they couldn't do anything until the band finished their late soundcheck and they couldn't open additional doors because they didn't have any extra ticket-takers and didn't want to violate their union contracts.

Ray Acra, one of the early arrivals, remembered being pressed against the glass doors. "we fought this for two and a half hours. People were just smashed against the windows. They opened the doors (at 7:30) and we were shot through like a cannon."

While Ray was fortunate that evening, Diana Cubert, farther back in the crowd, was less so. "I hurt, it hurt alot. I was within 5 feet of the doorway, then all of a sudden I could feel that there was someting down on the ground. That caused me to completely fall forward and land on the concrete. When I was laying there I could see people going over top and I couldn't breath I was frantically jerking my had from side to side trying to get air. I was wondering if I was going to get out of here.

Ed Kubrin recalled getting inside the Coliseum and finding a nearly unconscious girl. He recruited a group of boys to carry her to the nurses station at the other end of the building. When he finally reached the nurse he said "I got this girl, she's unconscious, you gotta do something!" [the nurse] looked right at me, it was obvious she had been crying, and said 'put on the floor with the other bodies."

Once the crowds had finally entered the Coliseum, police began to find the dead on the plaza. 11 young people lay dead (all from asphyxiation) and some 27 others were injured.

The Who's manager, Bill Curbishley, was the only one from the band who knew what was happening outside. He insisted to Menkaus that cancelling the show would only interfere with the rescue efforts, so the concert went on. "It was one of the best shows of the tour," Daltrey later said. After their two-hour set, Curbishley told the band that if they were going to do an encore, make it brief because something very very serious has happened. It was only after a 2-song encore that the band heard the news.

In fact, most in attendance had no idea of the tragedy outside until they left. Local rock station news director Craig Kopp remembered telling his audience, "If you were at the concert, stop, pull over, call home and tell them your OK."

Afterward the city was left trying to wonder why this happened. The promoter, the arena management and the band all blamed each other. Some even blamed the victims themselves. Then there were lawsuits and settlements that dragged out for years. Festival seating was banned in Cincinnati for the next 25 years. The Who never played cincinnati again.

It's now been 40 years since that night and many have forgot, but three of those who died were from the same small high school and they haven't forgotten. Their classmates at Finneytown HS now offer three college scholarships each year in their honor.
posted by codex99 (35 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Folks of a certain age will remember the episode of WKRP In Cincinnati [YT] based on the incident.
posted by mykescipark at 11:57 PM on December 2, 2019 [34 favorites]

Horrifying. I've been terrified of crowd crushes ever since watching footage from the Hillsborough disaster as a child. Surprised that I have never heard of this incident before. Thanks for the post.
posted by emd3737 at 1:32 AM on December 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

I remember this. I did not want to go to big concerts as a result.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 2:05 AM on December 3, 2019 [3 favorites]

I had just seen them on the same tour at MSG two months earlier so this was big news for me. Not at all the band's fault but I don't remember them handling the aftermath very adroitly.
posted by octothorpe at 2:57 AM on December 3, 2019

The way this was framed in the media ("stampede", "the crowd rushed the doors") was both deeply misleading and victim -blaming. This was a crowd crush death-trap. The mass of people had nowhere to go. When doors were opened, of course they surged through. But the reporting at the time framed this as if these greedy rock fans wanted to run to grab front-row seats, and that that is why there was carnage. That is not how these things work. Look up the terrifying footage of the similar disaster at the electronic music festival in Holland(iirc, but maybe Germany?) a few years ago.
posted by thelonius at 4:50 AM on December 3, 2019 [9 favorites]

Note that the Rolling Stone article was written in 1980, and features quotes from then-Cincinnati-councilman Jerry Springer.
posted by Johnny Assay at 5:12 AM on December 3, 2019 [3 favorites]

I was not cool enough to go to concerts. But many in my high school class did, and there was much talk about it the next day. I don’t recall anyone from my school being injured or killed.
posted by matildaben at 5:32 AM on December 3, 2019

I was not cool enough to go to concerts

At my high school, the Assistant Principal proudly wore his new Barry Manilow concert T-shirt to school the day after. How do you do, fellow kids!
posted by thelonius at 5:37 AM on December 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

The incident was also mirrored in the movie of Pink Floyd - The Wall; at the beginning, while "In the Flesh?" is playing, the scene of fans rushing in to grab festival seating and getting trampled is juxtaposed with scenes of his father in WWII.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:16 AM on December 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

thelonius, it always makes utterly furious how the the authorities and the venue owners blame the victims. Crowd crush traps just about always are the result of both bad design and bad decisions by those organizing an event, never malice on the part of those in the crush.

By the way, the bit about "Klopp noticed that there were actual human waves swaying like palm trees in a hurricane" -- that is one of the death signs. If you are ever, ever in a crowd that starts behaving like a fluid, get the hell out. Start working your way sideways, preferably towards a side wall, and then back and out.
posted by tavella at 8:55 AM on December 3, 2019 [21 favorites]

I have the Time magazine cover from that week. Headline: Rock's Outer Limits. I'll post it if I can find it tonight.
posted by j_curiouser at 9:15 AM on December 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

From the piece:
The coliseum’s first fatality came on October 4th, 1975, when seventeen-year-old Thomas Lambert, pursued by police who said he had cursed them, jumped or fell to his death from the plaza level to the street below.
excuse me? the 17-year old allegedly CURSED the cops who chased him to his death?


posted by capnsue at 9:25 AM on December 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

thelonius, it always makes utterly furious how the the authorities and the venue owners blame the victims. Crowd crush traps just about always are the result of both bad design and bad decisions by those organizing an event, never malice on the part of those in the crush.

As I said, I saw them in New York on the same tour and there were zero problems at that show and somehow I doubt that Greater New York Who fans were any less rowdy than Western Ohio fans.
posted by octothorpe at 9:34 AM on December 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

I saw a re-run of the WKRP episode that mykescipark mentioned upthread as a fairly young kid. I still remember how eerie the episode felt -- a very real departure from the usual tone of the show. If I recall, one of the things that made it feel creepy was the lack of incidental / diegetic music that normally was typically used in the show. It felt very...empty.

(This is all just in my memory of the episode, I'll have to go back and look at the youtube link when I'm not at work. I could of course be remembering this all wrong.)
posted by capnsue at 9:36 AM on December 3, 2019 [3 favorites]

What I recall at the time was a bunch of op-eds about how awful and depraved concert-goers did this to themselves. Then a bunch of crazed fans were trampled trying to see the pope a few weeks later and, well, people started talking about crowd control cause -you know - totally different.

I was 14 and that shut my mom up about mosh pits.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 10:12 AM on December 3, 2019 [8 favorites]

capnsue, I think what's most eerie about it is that for the first part of the episode, it plays like a typical episode with all the standard jokes; the station is giving away tickets and there's bits about out-of-touch Mr. Carlson going to a rock concert. Then all the sudden the night after the concert, the bottom drops out of it. And if you're a kid watching in reruns who did not know how it played out in real life (or that it was even based on a real life event until the end titles at the end*), it's a horrible gut punch that can still haunt you many years later. (YMMV but this was definitely my experience.)

* It's been well over 30 years since I saw it, and I could still remember that it was white lettering over a black background with lighting of some sort in the background. I just checked the youtube video mykescipark linked and my memory was precisely right.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 10:36 AM on December 3, 2019 [6 favorites]

Unfortunately, this was a disaster waiting to happen, and totally a function of the policy of festival seating inside large arenas and negligent crowd management.

I was at a Rolling Stones show inside the old Municipal Stadium in Cleveland the summer before The Who Tragedy. There were 80,000+ young people ready to enter a stadium for which virtually no one had an actual reserved seat. In their unquestionable wisdom, the authorities decided that in order to keep things orderly, they would only open two gates and they would open them just a bit ahead of when the first band was to take the stage. The (unintentional) effect was to maximize the size of the crowd trying to enter the stadium at once. The result was a rush I'd not experienced before nor since, thankfully. I had to use all of my effort to remain vertical because I was confident if I lost my balance I would be trampled to death. This was no easy feat because there were several times when I was literally carried by the crowd with my feet not touching the ground. I consider myself fortunate to have survived it.

I had tickets to The Who show in Detroit (Pontiac Silverdome) which was scheduled to take place several days after the Cincinnati show. I remember first being concerned for victims and then being concerned that the show would be canceled. Once it was decided the show would go on, hearing pleas from family not to attend. I strongly considered it until it was publicly announced that there would be huge changes in the standard protocol for shows with festival seating. The concert was set to begin at 8:00, but the gates were opened at noon. When my crew and I arrived at the stadium, we walked right in with no line whatsoever.

Pete Townshend did address the Cincinnati tragedy during the show and I recall that he did so in a satisfactory matter. I think the band were scapegoated by the media and politicians and they found themselves defending the indefensible.
posted by MorgansAmoebas at 11:12 AM on December 3, 2019 [8 favorites]

I was at college out of state so I didn't hear about it until later, but there were some anxious moments at home while my parents waited for my younger brother to make his way back from downtown. He lost his shirt in the crush and escaped through ruined chain link while people went down around him. With no cash, pre-Uber, pre-cellphone, separated from his ride, shirtless, scratched up, he eventually made it home. He still doesn't talk about it.

Three people from my high school were among the fatalities, classmates of my younger siblings and younger siblings of my classmates. Over the last couple of weeks, my FB feed has filled up with references to the P.E.M. Memorial (P.E.M. being the first letters of the last names of the Finneytown HS students who were killed that night).

Appreciate the post.
posted by rekrap at 11:45 AM on December 3, 2019 [13 favorites]

From the piece:
The coliseum’s first fatality came on October 4th, 1975, when seventeen-year-old Thomas Lambert, pursued by police who said he had cursed them, jumped or fell to his death from the plaza level to the street below.
excuse me? the 17-year old allegedly CURSED the cops who chased him to his death?

Jumped or fell aren’t the only options here.
posted by TedW at 12:04 PM on December 3, 2019 [4 favorites]

He ran to the first policeman he saw and shouted, “What are you doing? People are getting trampled up there.” The policeman looked him over and asked, “What do you do for a living?” Klopp replied, almost in shock, “Working on a Ph.D. in language.” The policeman said, “Well, you just used a dangling participle.” Klopp, caught up in the absurdity, said, “I think I know more about language than you do.” The policeman smiled: “Well, don’t tell me how to do my job, then.” Klopp lost his temper: “People are getting hurt.” The policeman said, “Well, we can’t do anything.”
No cop is your friend or helper ever.
posted by stet at 12:04 PM on December 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

Here's an interesting article from the New Yorker on crowds and how to attempt to control them.
posted by ensign_ricky at 12:33 PM on December 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

Attended the Pontiac Silverdome show a week or so later, in the middle of the concert the crowd in front of the stage started swaying back and forth and exhibiting some of that fluid property that tavella mentioned upthread. Can't remember if the band actually stopped playing but I do remember a look of alarm on Pete's face. After a few minutes the crowd settled down and the show proceeded without further incident. My first and really only encounter with the out-of-control feeling inside a mob of humans.
posted by e1c at 12:37 PM on December 3, 2019 [3 favorites]

I was at a lot of 70s concerts. Festival seating was the norm and some auditoriums were just a nightmare. If you wanted to get close to the stage it was survival of the fittest. Especially for acts that had a fanatical following of young males. I was at a Zeppelin show that had assigned seats and by the encore the entire arena was utter chaos despite a massive security presence. When this happened at a Who show I wasn't surprised in the least. Saddened but not surprised.

The arena closest to us was one we had figured which doors opened first so if we got there early enough, we'd just hang by those particular doors. Then again, we were males in our late teens and if we were in the lead, we stayed in the lead. I recall one show where we sprinted to stage and there was this ten/eleven year old kid, whose uncle worked at the auditorium, standing at the barricade (no doubt he was one of the posters in the "how did boomers survive" thread). He was a little freaked out at several thousand teens storming across the floor towards him. A friend, who was a little over six feet and easily two fifty in weight put the kid in front of him and locked his arms on the barricade. "Ain't nobody gonna touch you here." And they didn't. The band was Heart. Ann Wilson bent over at one point and blew the little kid a kiss.
posted by Ber at 12:52 PM on December 3, 2019 [8 favorites]

I've only ever been to one large festival seating concert in my life. It was chaotic but not dangerous. But this tragedy, which happened about five years after my experience, totally soured me on festival seating. There's no reason for this method of seating/ticket selling.
posted by lhauser at 7:00 PM on December 3, 2019

A few years after this tragedy I went to a Rolling Stones concert at the L.A. Coliseum. It had festival seating. Me and my friends were there to see Prince, who opened, and were unable, having worked ourselves to the front, to get out. Some nice guy lifted me up and out and I went to find someone in authority to complain about the lack of egress, and was laughed at.

But the more terrifying thing was a year later at a PiL gig at some big nasty venue that I think normally hosting boxing matches. PiL was hours late. I thought I was safe at the edges, but when the band started, I got swept inside a vortex of people. My feet couldn't find the ground; there was no air. Terrifying.
posted by goofyfoot at 7:11 PM on December 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

Update: tonight a local Cincinnati station aired a 40th anniversary special about the tragedy. It was the first time ever that the entire remaining band talked about the tragedy. Townsend said he'd like to return to Cincinnati to play for the scholarship endowment. He said that the show should end, not with Won't Get Fooled Again, but with Love Reign O'er Me. Here's the link to stream the special.

Also, that Who show was the first concert I ever went to.
posted by codex99 at 8:04 PM on December 3, 2019 [5 favorites]

Someone above mentioned "the crowd is behaving like a fluid" (waves of movement, often that lift you off your feet if you don't go along) -- that's a really, really bad one, and the advice is good (that whenever a wave relents, you move to the side as far as possible and then start going back until you're out.) This is why good crowd management involves "locks" like in a canal that stop that movement from really ever getting started. If you've ever been to Times Square on NYE you know that's how they do it there, small pens that you can leave but can't return to once you do, and that prevent dangerous pressure levels.

But there's an earlier sign that I learned from reading about crowd dynamics that I use, and have used several times to decide to leave a situation, and that is simply: if you are in a crowd where you can feel a person touching all four sides of you (front, back, left, right) then leave.

If you find yourself wanting a deep dive into the topic, this site is pretty interesting
posted by gloriouslyincandescent at 10:01 PM on December 3, 2019 [8 favorites]

Thank you for that link, codex99.

The very recent New York Times feature of Pete Townsend said nothing about this
posted by goofyfoot at 10:05 PM on December 3, 2019

It seems that we don't always learn from our mistakes. (Link goes to a story of a similar incident from 2000 at a Pearl Jam gig.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:36 AM on December 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

I don't go to the big Pride parade in San Francisco anymore. A couple years ago, we took BART, hopped off at Civic Center, and... were met with an unmoving crowd. Trains kept coming and dumping people out into the crowd. Escalators and stairwells kept forcing people deeper into the crowd. The street level crowds prohibited all but a few people getting out of the crowd and onto the street at a time, despite hundreds more arriving every minute or two via more trains. It got very, very quiet as people realized how trapped we were. Every once in a while, there would be a panicked wave of pressure rippling through the crowd, as people would calmly but firmly shout, "Stop pushing, we're all in this together, please be patient."

I cannot believe the poor planning of it all. It took us over an hour to inch out of there. Never, ever again. I am absolutely amazed that that day didn't turn into something like this.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 10:02 AM on December 4, 2019 [5 favorites]

That's really scary, late afternoon dreaming hotel. There's not even any option to work your way back out of the crowd in that kind of a crush trap, though you are still better off trying to get to the sides, preferably where you can brace against a wall so you won't get knocked down.
posted by tavella at 2:17 PM on December 4, 2019

Some of the links I found about crowd crush survival say to avoid walls at all costs.
posted by thelonius at 2:55 PM on December 4, 2019

Getting trapped against walls in the direction of the crush point you'd want to avoid, but if you can move sideways out of the pressure focus then the greatest danger becomes getting pushed over and trampled rather than standing compression. Though I suppose in a dead end trap everything can become a pressure focus.
posted by tavella at 4:07 PM on December 4, 2019

But the more terrifying thing was a year later at a PiL gig at some big nasty venue that I think normally hosting boxing matches. PiL was hours late. I thought I was safe at the edges, but when the band started, I got swept inside a vortex of people. My feet couldn't find the ground; there was no air. Terrifying.

I looked to see if you were from my home town of Louisville, Kentucky, because I attended a PiL show at the Louisville Gardens, a wrestling arena with bleacher seating but an open floor. INXS opened that particular show, and as with your experience at the Prince/Rolling Stones show, many INXS fans were hemmed in by the crowd once John Lydon took the stage. That too must have been a scary experience, though so far as I know no one was hurt (in fact, several concertgoers were passed overhead thru the crowd, which I hope was the nice gesture it seemed at the time).
posted by Gelatin at 12:03 PM on December 5, 2019

« Older Tom Hanks as the human equivalent of a Labrador...   |   Nothing lasts forever— not even on the internet. Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments