2017 Malawi Stampede Observations

A July 6, 2017 stampede at the Bingu National Stadium in Lilongwe, Malawi resulted in the deaths of 8 people, seven of them children.  At least 62 injuries were reported.  The chaos ensued as fans were trying to enter the venue.  Apparently, the opening of a specific gate had been delayed.  Fearing they might be turned away, fans grew impatient and allegedly tried to force their way inside.  Police responded by firing tear gas at the unruly crowd.

This event was free to the general public.  A championship soccer match at the stadium would be followed by an Independence Day celebration.  A military parade, fireworks, live music, etc.  I’m not an expert on entertainment in South Central Africa, but I imagine for the citizens of Malawi, it was the equivalent of a Super Bowl on the 4th of July.  Demand was likely high… and supply limited.  The stadium’s maximum capacity is 40,000.

An investigation into the cause of the stampede has been ordered by President Peter Mutharika.

In my discussions about human stampedes, I often hear the comment “Well, things like that just don’t happen in the Untied States.  We have safer stadiums and superior crowd control measures in place.  Also, Americans are just more “civilized.”

Here’s my counter-take.

Oddly enough, a few days later, a different stampede made the news.  But this one transpired last July at a Gwen Stefani concert in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Fans from the lawn seating area surged into the pavilion.  It never registered on my radar until a woman, Lisa Stricklen, sued the singer for $150,000.  The damage cited:  a broken tibia in her leg, physical suffering, mental anguish, lost wages, etc.

The allegation is that Gwen Stefani, the lead singer, unilaterally encouraged fans from the general admission lawn area to rush the pavilion.

“I don’t think anybody’s gonna care.  Just fill in anywhere you like!  Who cares about your lawn chairs?  You can get new ones!”

The result — A huge crowd of concert-goers stormed the reserved seating area, overwhelming security staff and breaking through barricades.

The lawsuit also alleges Stefani said, “I got in so much trouble for telling you guys to come up here.  It was fun but you guys kind of have to move out of the fire lane, or else I’m dead.  So can you please get back to your seats?”

So what exactly happened here?  If you seek to connect the dots, I don’t think this requires a seasoned investigative journalist.  Stefani’s suggestive commentary obviously resulted in the crowd surge.  Now were there any fatalities?  No.

But still, I think it speaks to the point that unanticipated variables are a leading, or at the very least, a contributing factor to stampedes.  Large crowds do not just spontaneously panic.  Introducing unexpected variables into any equation can markedly change the overall dynamic.  A sudden shift in crowd behavior can come at any time, in a virtually infinite number of ways.

Final takeaway — In the late 90’s, technology shifted.  Society changed.  I don’t know about you, but these days, I’ve noticed a lot of people staring into their cell phones.  If they’re not analyzing the miniature screens, they’re grasping them much like an evangelical preacher holds a bible.  Quite often, these tiny super computers are directly compressed against their heads and faces.  They emit even the slightest shake or sound… and human beings react like Pavlovian dogs.  Everywhere, people are totally immersed in their cell phones, beholden to their wireless devices.

So hey, maybe it would be a prudent idea to let people know that stadiums and amphitheaters do NOT issue emergency evacuation orders via your personal cell phone.  Then again, common sense is a hot commodity these days.  It makes you wonder why such an obviously generic recommendation isn’t available for public consumption.  Isn’t it peculiar how this specific, hypothetical directive remains “undiscussable?”

Then again, maybe it’s just me.