Can crowd surges be prevented?

The Itaewon tragedy comes nearly a year after 10 people died at Astroworld during another crowd surge

(Image credit: Illustrated | REUTERS, Getty Images)

It has been nearly one year since 10 people died after the crowd surged during rapper Travis Scott's headlining set at the Astroworld music festival in Houston. Since then, more attention has been paid to the dangers of crowd crushes, but they are still happening — on Halloween weekend, at least 154 people died in a crowd surge in Seoul. Here's everything you need to know:

The latest

On Oct. 29, a crowd crush in Seoul's Itaewon district left at least 154 people dead and 82 injured. It's estimated that more than 100,000 revelers were in the neighborhood that night, to celebrate the first Halloween since social distancing restrictions were lifted. Itaewon is known for its bustling bars, restaurants, shops, and cafes, and the surge took place in a narrow alleyway with businesses on one side and a hotel wall on the other, near a busy subway station exit.

A crowd safety expert who reviewed video taken at the scene told The Washington Post that about an hour before emergency calls started coming in, there were warning signs. "You can see the static crowd ahead and people moving towards that area, that's indicative of a potential problem," Keith Still, visiting professor of crowd science at the University of Suffolk in England, said.

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Witnesses report that before the surge, people started shouting "Push! Push!" and that caused the people ahead of them to fall down. Videos shot in the alleyway show people trying to stabilize themselves by grabbing onto poles and awnings, and witnesses say because of the loud music, people further back in the crowd couldn't hear the screams and cries for help from the front.

"Hazards that don't cause trouble individually can get deadly when they come together at the same time, in the same place," Prof. Yoon Yong-Kyun, an expert in disaster prevention at Semyung University in South Korea, told The New York Times. "That's what happened around that alleyway in Itaewon on Saturday night."

That night, only 137 police officers had been assigned to Itaewon, and they were tasked with trying to prevent drug use and theft rather than crowd control. By law, a sponsor or organizer of a large event in Seoul must meet with the police to go over safety measures and crowd and traffic control, but because people came to the neighborhood spontaneously, there was no crowd control plan. Critics say the local police and government officials should have known a large crowd would gather like in years past, and had a safety plan in place. Hong Ki-hyun, chief of the National Police Agency, shared his "regrets" over law enforcement's failure to enact crowd control measures and said there is a manual for events without a clear organizer.

Was the Itaewon tragedy similar to what happened at Astroworld?

While both were crowd crushes, the Itaewon surge took place in a smaller, narrower area. On Nov. 5, 2021, an estimated 50,000 people were at Houston's NRG Park for night one of the Astroworld festival. Hours before the music started, hundreds of fans waiting to get inside the venue broke through the gates in the VIP security area, and several ended up being trampled, ABC 13 reports. Founder Travis Scott has a long history of encouraging people to go wild at his shows — in 2015, he was arrested at Lollapalooza in Chicago after telling concertgoers to climb over the barricades, and during a 2017 concert at New York City's Terminal 5, he urged a young man to jump from a second-floor balcony — and when he finally took the stage in Houston, "everything started to happen," audience member Anita Amper told CNN. "People just went berserk."

Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña said that "for whatever reason," the crowd "began to push and surge towards the front of the stage, which caused the people in the front to be compressed. People began to fall out, become unconscious." Witnesses described being so close to others they couldn't lift up their arms and seeing their fellow concertgoers trying to give people who had passed out CPR as they waited for help to arrive.

Could the Astroworld and Itaewon crowd surges have been prevented?

Astroworld, like most outdoor festivals, was standing-room only. This is "the most dangerous and deadly" crowd configuration, Paul Wertheimer of the consulting firm Crowd Management Strategies told People, because it's easy for a space to become overcrowded. The National Fire Protection Association has set standards for such events to prevent incidents like crowd surges, including having at least one crowd manager per 250 attendees. They monitor what is happening in their area, so if they notice trouble brewing, it can be addressed before things spiral out of control. Houston does not have an official capacity limit for outdoor events, and Wertheimer told Rolling Stone that "frankly, capacity should probably be determined by some sort of government entity."

In Itaewon, there were no police officers providing crowd or traffic control, unlike in previous years; one woman who had been to the district during Halloween 2019 said there had been dozens of officers providing crowd control. Milad Haghani, a senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales and a crowd safety researcher, told the Times that the Itaewon crowd surge was "absolutely avoidable," and there should have been officials on hand paying close attention to the size of the crowd, ready to avert disaster. South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol on Tuesday said the tragedy showed how vital it is to research crowd management, and suggested using drones and other technology to manage crowds in the future. "Rather than nitpicking about whether the event had an organizer or not, it's the people's safety that's important, and we need to come up with thorough measures," he said.

How do you stay safe at a large festival or event?

First, come dressed for success. Wear shoes that are sturdy so you don't get hurt if people step on your feet, and make sure they aren't slippery. You want to stay upright, because if you fall down, it will be difficult to get back up, and you don't want other people to trip and land on top of you. Upon arrival at a venue, make an exit plan before entering the crowd, and take note of the evacuation routes, Mark Herrera, director of safety and security at the International Association of Venue Managers, told People.

Research scientist Mehdi Moussaïd studies crowd behavior, and he told NPR that if you feel the crowd getting dense and this makes you uncomfortable, move away. If you're caught in a surge, Wertheimer advises not to yell or scream — no one can hear over the loud music. "Do not resist the crowd surges and crowd pressure because you'll burn up what energy you have, and you can't resist the extraordinary pressure," he said. "Try to absorb it, let it pass through you, just enough that you can remain standing." Moussaïd says it's best to steer clear of walls, because you can't go with the flow if a solid obstacle is in your way.

Will anyone face consequences for the Astroworld and Itaewon surges?

Prof. Yeom Gun Woong, a criminal law expert at U1 University's Department of Police and Fire Administration, told the Times that if the police investigation determines that people did start pushing in the Itaewon alleyway, setting off the crowd surge, criminal charges could be filed. Additionally, the families of the deceased could also attempt to sue the government for not doing anything to prevent the catastrophe.

In the wake of Astroworld, at least 18 lawsuits were filed against Scott, festival producer Live Nation, and other organizers on behalf of victims who were killed or hurt. One lawsuit accused the organizers of "egregiously" failing to "protect the health, safety, and lives of those in attendance at the concert," and notes that Scott continued to perform even as "many individuals were seen lifting up the unconscious bodies of friends and strangers and surged them over the top of the crowd, hoping to send them to safety." (Scott's attorney said the performer did not realize what was happening during his show.) At least one of the lawsuits was settled out of court in late October, for an undisclosed amount.

How did other musical artists respond to Astroworld?

Several musicians, including Harry Styles, Billie Eilish, and Adele, have made headlines for stopping their shows to either help fans in distress or calm the crowd down. Steve Allen, a former tour manager for Blur, Led Zeppelin, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, told The Guardian in August he would "guarantee that since Astroworld, management companies are saying to their artists: If you see this happening, do not in any circumstances incite the crowd. If someone is saying stop the show, then stop the show. If not, it'll be the end of your career."

Allen said most crowd management at concerts is preventative rather than reactive, and it's important that everyone working on a tour has "a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities." He believes that "everyone has a duty of care, but the artists are up on that stage to perform for a crowd. They should have people in place via the promoter."

How did earlier crowd surges change concerts and large events?

In 2000, nine people died at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark during a Pearl Jam set, and in the wake of that tragedy, organizers met with crowd safety experts to enact best practices for large-scale events, which are now used throughout Europe. The techniques employed include limiting how many people can stand in front of a stage, leaving wide enough spaces in the crowd in case an ambulance needs to get through, and giving an independent security manager the power to end a show if necessary.

Wertheimer told Rolling Stone he thinks real change won't happen until criminal charges are filed against the promoters and agencies "that sign off on these reckless events. Do that, and safety will change overnight. If nobody's criminally charged, families of the deceased will sue, those injured will sue. And four years from now, they'll settle with everybody. We'll do the legal dance, and then in between and after, it will be business as usual."

Update Nov. 1: This article has been updated throughout to include details of the tragedy in Itaewon.

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