On June 28, 2013, a young man identified as Douglas Henrique de Oliveira died after he “fell” from a viaduct (a small bridge) in Belo Horizante, Brazil. His death came during protests that have engulfed much of Brazil during the Confederations Cup soccer tournament. His “falling” was likely the result of a sudden rush of protesters in which he was involuntarily pushed over the edge. Or he may been impacted by tear gas or rubber bullets in clashes with police. Regardless, it reminded me of past stampedes involving bridges.
Historically speaking, bridges can be dangerous. Countless have died during the construction and demolition phases, particularly in times of war. Vehicular accidents on bridges often introduce unusual elements of danger. These structures are sometimes an instrument of suicide as was evidenced in the 2006 documentary film “The Bridge.” It examined a rash of such incidents at California’s Golden Gate Bridge. When most people think of major human stampedes, they immediately think of stadiums and religious festivals. However, due to their inherent nature, bridges are sometimes the location of tremendous carnage.
In 1883, the much anticipated Brooklyn Bridge was opened to the general public. It linked Manhattan to Brooklyn over the East RIver. On the day of the grand opening, an estimated 150,000 people flocked to the bridge and paid the penny toll to walk across it. A week later, a large crowd was walking across the bridge when someone allegedly yelled, “the bridge is collapsing.” A panic immediately ensued and 15 people were trampled to death.
Fast forward to 2005. The Al-Aaimmah Bridge stampede killed an estimated 953. This event represented the single, biggest loss of life during the U.S. led occupation of Iraq (2003 to the present). During a religious procession, pilgrims had to cross the bridge over the Tigris River in order to reach a shrine in Baghdad. Tensions were already running high based on earlier mortar attacks that day. Although difficult to substantiate, rumor of an impending suicide bomber quickly spread through the crowd and triggered the crush. Most were trampled to death or asphyxiated. Some of the victims drowned to death as they were forcibly ejected into the river below.
Fast forward another 5 years to Phnom Penh, Camboida in 2010. The capital city attracted a huge crowd for the annual Water Festival. An estimated crowd of 8,000 gathered on the bridge for the festivities. It’s difficult to ascertain exactly what triggered the panic. There could have been multiple factors. Some have blamed police for firing water cannons which may have led to accidental electrocutions. Many claim that the natural sway of the bridge combined with soaring temperatures and overcrowding led to the panic. Truth be told, it was probably a confluence of several things. But the inevitable result of all this pushing and shoving was one of the worst disasters in the history of Cambodia.
Pertaining to the Baghdad and Phnom Penh stampedes, it’s not difficult to notice an eerie similarity. The aftermath of litter – shoes and clothing literally ripped from the bodies of the victims.
In 2012, my girlfriend and I attended Bridge Day in Fayetteville, West Virginia. This annual event is held in late October and commemorates the completion of the New River Gorge Bridge. The span is temporarily closed to vehicles as crowds (estimated in the 80,000 range) gather to watch as people BASE jump into the New River Gorge. It has been held every year since 1980, with the exception of 2011, when it was canceled due to concerns regarding 9/11 and the possibility of a terrorist attack.
While I seriously doubt that Bridge Day in central West Virginia would be a likely terrorist target, the event does raise some practical and logistical concerns. I made a key observation that day. People seemed to have problems with cell reception. Lots of unavailable service issues and plenty of dropped calls, likely due to an extreme increase in cellular traffic. It’s also a mountainous, rural area with a low population density.
But even with the poor cell coverage, I still wondered… just how many festival-goers, law enforcement officials and emergency responders have ever been briefed on the potential for an artificially generated stampede? Other than my close personal friends in attendance, I’d predict that number to be statistically insignificant.