Stampede Dynamics

mosque picThe new year was ushered in by a human stampede in northwestern China.  Fourteen people were pronounced dead.  The January 5, 2014 stampede was allegedly triggered by the distribution of free bread at the overcrowded Beida mosque in the Ningxia region.

Authorities blamed the tragedy on familiar indicators: gross incompetence, poor crowd control measures and a lack of organization and managerial oversight.

As a result, four individuals were fired: the county and township heads, the county’s director of religious affairs and a deputy police chief.  The mosque’s administrator has been detained on a suspicion of criminal negligence charge.  Although this particular stampede was of limited size and scope, I doubt the firings were of much comfort to those who lost loved ones.

We’ve all found ourselves in dangerously overcrowded situations.  Have you ever felt the “push and pull” of fans at a general admission rock concert?  Have you ever been forcibly lifted off your feet by Mardi Gras revelers in the narrow confines of Bourbon Street?  Have you ever witnessed the aggressive mob mentality as shoppers gather on Black Friday?  These are the typical American conceptualizations of a stampede.

Historically speaking, human stampedes are more common in Asia, Africa and Europe.  Americans associate stampedes with combative bargain hunters, unruly protests, flash mobs and celebratory fans tearing down goalposts.  While there may be elements of anxiousness and trepidation, I can assure you that most people are not fearing for their lives.  Their senses may be heightened, but most aren’t anticipating a life or death struggle.

In the aftermath of a stampede, if a lead investigator were to say, “Well… the crowd just panicked.”  Well… that would likely be an insufficient explanation.  People want to comprehend the reasoning behind how and why a tragedy unfolded.  They want answers.  And that’s when you hear the traditional roll out of excuses regarding organization, planning and management.  But I can assure you of one thing.  The essence of ANY stampede stems from one dominant characteristic – human panic.

So what exactly is it that transforms a large crowd into a churning machine of injuries and fatalities?  Let me give you a hint.  It’s called REAL PANIC – the legitimate fear that your life could abruptly end.  When the physiological behavior of the crowd dramatically shifts.  When you hear the screams.  When parents think their children might die.  When you see that first person get knocked to the ground.  When you witness a person tumble head-first down a steep flight of concrete steps.  When any of these things happen, all behavior that’s customary and routine is tossed out the window.  Now take those unscripted, individual emotions and exponentially multiply them by the size of the crowd.

American ignorance and hubris adds a critical dimension to the equation.  The vast majority of Americans have never been impacted by a full throttle human stampede.  They simply cannot grasp a hundred people being trampled or forcibly ejected over the railing of a soccer stadium.  Or far worse, a thousand people suffocating from compressive asphyxiation in a condensed area, such as the 1990 Hajj (a religious pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia), the 2005 Baghdad Bridge stampede or a bomb shelter in 1941 Chongqing, China.  They’ve just never witnessed the raw impact of genetically ingrained herding instincts.  It’s one thing to read about it in a brief newspaper clipping.  It’s entirely another thing to be an actual participant.

As I was explaining earlier, it’s best to put aside your preconceived notions of what constitutes a human stampede.  A legitimate stampede is a unique phenomenon that Americans are simply unfamiliar with.

There’s an enormous difference between:

believing the notion that “those things” just don’t happen here

and

believing the notion that “those things” could NEVER happen here.

There are all kinds of steps you can take to mitigate a disaster, but real-time, real-world panic has a way of instantly transforming the situation on the ground.  All the regulations, all the security, all the precautionary measures — none of it matters, if and when, the panic is genuine.  But the bigger mistake is believing that Americans are somehow fundamentally different or less susceptible to the dynamics that govern human panic.  We aren’t.