Reflections on The Who Concert Stampede

December 3, 1979, marks the 40th anniversary of a stampede at Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati, OH. Eleven people died, 26 were injured.

Simply stated, human stampedes are tragic outcomes. Mostly the result of unanticipated situational variables. Nothing more, nothing less. Here’s the gist of what happened.

One of the hottest bands on the planet showed up for a sold-out crowd of 18,348. 80% of the tickets were designated as general admission. Hours before the start of the concert, nearly half the crowd had assembled in front of the arena. It was below freezing and the wind chill factor was kicking in. Finally, some of the doors opened. But others remained shut. Imagine the prospect of watching fans running down the hallway while you’re stuck outside in the bitter cold.

Suddenly, it sounded like the band had taken the stage. This is still a matter of conjecture as some claim the band was performing a late soundcheck. Others maintain it was just prerecorded background music. Either way, fans outside sensed they were missing the show. Many grew anxious and pressed forward aggressively. And there you go, Presto! An instant bowl of chaos. As you can see, it doesn’t take many ingredients to stir up a spicy stampede gumbo.

Now in 1979, I was only 9 years old. A little young to attend a rock concert I suppose. Also a little too young to operate a motor vehicle. But there are some interesting parallels between the concert industry and the auto industry.

When I was born in 1970, my father drove us home from the hospital. My mother held me on her lap in the passenger seat, wrapped in a blanket. At the time, baby carriers weren’t really “a thing.” However nowadays, if a security guard saw this scenario unfold in the parking lot, he/she might actually call the police.

Consider the evolution of the seat belt. In the early days, seat belts didn’t even exist. Then, the lap belt eventually morphed into more of a sophisticated shoulder restraint. But this transformation took time. Not months or years, but decades.

Seat belt laws and fines vary from state to state. To this day, there’s only one state with NO mandatory seat belt law. I guess congratulations are in order to the “Live Free or Die” state. Perhaps New Hampshire residents have a strange proclivity for that electronic dinging reminder. Over time, you’d think it would grow annoying. Perhaps not.

And what about the airbag industry? It was never even conceptualized until there were “enough” fatalities. The result of “too many” gruesome head-on collisions.

I remember times when our Little League coach would cram a dozen of us kids into the back of his pick-up truck. Every once in a while, he’d take us to the local Dairy Queen to celebrate a big win. But these days, that probably wouldn’t “pass the smell test.” Not because people are any different, but because laws and easily recognizable social mores dictate a more safety conscious environment.

My contention is as follows: laws in the realm of public safety evolve over time. They take time. And to be extremely blunt… it is the norm, not the exception, that large numbers of people must usually be injured or die BEFORE the necessary inertia is summoned to make substantive change in government policy. Then, the mandate for implementation carries over to big business.

Transitioning back to the coliseum and The Who concert tragedy. Large arenas and stadiums share similar safety and situational protocols. However, the National Football League goes the extra mile. Likely due to their Tier 1 Homeland Security designation. It’s why they have drone and flight path restrictions. It’s why they utilize perimeter fencing. It’s why they employ concrete crash barriers. It’s why they use magnetometers and bomb detectors, from K-9 units to under vehicle detection systems. Pre-9/11, none of this stuff was even remotely considered. Why? Not because the technology didn’t exist. They didn’t use the stuff because it would have been deemed frivolous and unnecessary (based on historical precedent). Once again my point: times change.

Mark my words. There will eventually be a cyber-terrorism incident in which a significant number of people die. Now I’m not omniscient. I don’t have all the speculative answers. But I do know one thing. It’s not a matter of if. It’s a matter of when.

My chief concern, is that one of these days, an NFL stadium will likely encounter a very specific, albeit absurdly generic, unanticipated variable — a “wireless intrusion and potential saturation.” Most likely designed to spark a mass panic and create an artificially generated stampede. Yep, it’s those pesky little cell phones, dag-gummit!

NFL security might do a decent job with the physical realm, but they do next to nothing in the cyber-realm. That trend, namely the status quo, will continue… until something bad happens, or at a bare minimum, is attempted. Then, society will get its act together and explicitly divulge what many in the industry are already well aware of.

Official stadium evac orders would NEVER be issued via your personal cell phone or mobile device.

Unfortunately, in the interim, government and private industry will do nothing. Well, until of course, innocent people are injured or die. Or both. Then, they’ll spill the beans.

This leaves me with one simple question. Why not be proactive, get ahead of the curve, and just tell people the truth?