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Rock History 101: The Who Concert Disaster – 12/3/1979

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When large groups of people gather together there is always the potential for something to go wrong and for injury to occur, be it intentional or otherwise. Musical events are certainly not immune to this phenomenon as history has provided many examples: Altamont, the Great White show in Rhode Island, Woodstock ’99, and the Who at Riverfront. Altamont’s tragedy was the result of concert promoters and the Rolling Stones hiring the Hell’s Angels as event security. The fire at the Station in Rhode Island during a Great White performance started after people associated with the group lit off pyrotechnics inside the venue. Woodstock ’99 is what happens when gross commercialization and the corruption of a once potentially noble concept supersedes any other concerns. The Who disaster, however, was not the fault of the band or Electric Factory Concerts, the event’s promoters. After inquiry, the blame effectively rested with the venue’s festival seating policy – a general admission making seats available on a first come, first serve basis.

Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum (now US Bank Arena) was no stranger to incidents. Fans at a 1976 Yes performance set off fireworks inside during the performance. The venue itself had developed a reputation of allowing crowds to run out of control, especially after an incident at a 1977 Led Zeppelin show. At that performance 60 would-be concert goers were arrested and dozens more were injured as a seat-seeking crowd forced its way forward crushing people against the closed doors. Despite this incident and the elimination of festival seating in similar venues across the United States by this time, Riverfront maintained its festival seating ticketing policy.

December in Cincinnati is certainly not a time when one chooses to stand outside for hours on end. However, weather, pleasant or not, would not deter Who fans from collecting outside Riverfront Coliseum on December 3, 1979. With a combination of the venue’s festival seating and the event being the Who’s first performance in Cincinnati since 1975, fans gathered shortly after noon for the 8 p.m. show. By mid-afternoon, the police had to be called in to help quell the crowd, which by this time was swelling into the thousands. By 7 p.m., a crowd estimated at 8,000 people had amassed outside the venue’s locked glass doors.

Of the 18,500 tickets made available for the concert, approximately 3, 500 were reserved seating. These ticket holders entered the venue via other entrances and were completely unaware of the situation unfolding outside. Police Lieutenant Dale Menkhaus failed to convince venue staff to open a second set of doors and was told that the venue did not have enough ticket-takers to open multiple sets of doors. Union rules prevented the venue from recruiting ushers to handle such duties and a fear of gate-crashers also contributed to the venue’s reluctance to accommodate with more entrances.When the band began to perform a late sound check, the crowd outside surged forward, fearing that the show had begun. From a broad bank of doors, only a few were open to allow entrance. As the doors would open, fans would rush forward to get in. When the doors would close, the crowd’s momentum continued forward crushing those in front.  An usher at Riverfront, Ray Schwertman, claimed the pushing began in earnest after a patron threw a bottle through one of the doors with “people…reaching through the hole in the door trying to come in.” Happening repeatedly, the ebb and flow of the crowd eventually overwhelmed the glass doors. At approximately 7:20 p.m. one set of doors succumbed to the crowd’s force and shattered while another set was thrown open.

As soon as the doors were opened, dozens of concertgoers were forced down to the ground by the crowd’s momentum. Attendee Ron Duristch said of the moment, “A wave swept me to the left and when I regained my stance I felt that I was standing on someone. I screamed with all my strength that I was standing on someone. I couldn’t move, I could only scream.” For over 15 minutes, the crowd forced its way into the venue. With no Riverfront security personnel in sight the police on hand, aware of the potential for disaster, were overwhelmed by the attendees. Candice Momper, another concertgoer, said of the scene, “There were people piled up. Off their feet. On the ground.  At least 20 of them. Some were unconscious.  The crowd couldn’t see the people were piled up till they got up there.  Then the crowd from behind just kept pushing so much that people kept walking over them.”

As ticket holders pushed forward the police could do very little other than force their way into the crowd and help stem the surge. After 25 minutes of chaos, the police began working their way into the crowd when they found the first of what would be eleven concert-goers lying on the ground, dead from compressive asphyxia. Officer Dave Grawe said, “The crowd jammed people up so tightly in front that they just passed out. They didn’t even fall down. They must have jammed up so tight that they didn’t get any air and just died.”

Despite 11 deaths, the majority of whom were under 21 and two who were mothers, and the 26 injured, the concert went on as scheduled. Fearing an overreaction by the crowd far worse than what had just happened if the promoters canceled the event, Cincinnati fire officials and the police instructed Riverfront to go on with the show. Those already seated with reserved tickets had no knowledge of the tragedy and the band was not told of what had happened until hours after the final encore. Lieutenant Menkhaus defended the decision: “The concert went on because, I think, it was in the best interest of all. Had we cancelled it, I’m sure there would have been more panic than ever.”

The Who’s concert disaster was perhaps a bigger tragedy in the sense that so much of it could have been prevented through better planning – especially between Coliseum staff and the local police force. A lack of communication between the event staff and concert attendees also contributed to the problems. Today, this tragedy is certainly not the worst of its kind (the Great White show had far more deaths); however, at the time, this was the deadliest concert disaster in American history. The events at Riverfront even became the subject for an episode in the second season of WKRP In Cincinnati entitled “In Concert”.

Immediately after the events of December 3rd, Riverfront Coliseum did away with its festival seating policy and the city of Cincinnati placed a city-wide ban on such ticketing. Over the following six months a comprehensive study was conducted in hopes of preventing such failings and tragedies from occurring in the future. The Task Force on Crowd Control and Safety presented its 90 page document entitled “Crowd Management” in July 1980 and to this day remains a “landmark document in the field of crowd management.” With a single exception being made for Bruce Springsteen in 2002, Cincinnati maintained its ban on general admission seating until 2004. In August 2004, the Cincinnati City Council overturned the ban, citing that having it in place put the city at a disadvantage for booking concerts.

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