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Anatomy of a Crowd Surge: Analyzing factors that played role in Astroworld tragedy

EXCLUSIVE: TheGrio spoke with body performance and injury expert Dr. Rami Hashish to discuss what may have led to the Astroworld Festival deaths.

The aftermath of the tragedy at the Astroworld Festival on Nov. 5 has been mounting exponentially with chaos and controversy. Following the deaths of nine attendees during headliner and festival founder Travis Scott’s Saturday night set, numerous dominoes swiftly began to drop.

The festival’s second day was immediately canceled. Rapper Roddy Rich pledged to donate his net earnings for appearing to the families of the deceased. Scott has offered to pay for the funeral costs of the dead, refund all Astroworld ticket buyers, and has withdrawn from his forthcoming appearance at the Day N Vegas Festival. 

A memorial to those who died at the Astroworld festival is displayed outside of NRG Park on November 09, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

As video accounts of the concerts from bystanders began going viral, finger-pointing has been unrelenting in the direction of Scott, first on social media and now in the form of legal action. No less than18 lawsuits have been filed against Scott, festival organizers, and even Drake, who was a surprise guest during Scott’s set. 

Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok are being flooded with disturbing real-time clips of concertgoers being trampled, bodies being carted off as CPR is administered on them, fans pleading with camera operators to stop the concert because of dead bodies in the crowd, and so on. 

So, who is to blame for the deaths and injuries? What led the victims to die? Houston Fire Chief Samuel Pena described it as “The crowd began to compress towards the front of the stage, and that caused some panic, and it started causing some injuries,” as previously reported by the Associated Press.

The term being used by multiple publications has been “a crowd surge.” Now, exactly what is a crowd surge? Is it the same as a stampede, a mosh pit? What incited this so-called crowd surge? Many are blaming Scott, saying that he encouraged the aggressive atmosphere, or even that he saw the chaos and chose to carry on with the show? 

Travis Scott performs at Day 1 of the Astroworld Music Festival at NRG Park on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021, in Houston. (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP)

Dr. Rami Hashish, a body performance and injury expert, explained to theGrio, that there are more than one contributing factors that may have led to what Pena deemed a “mass casualty incident.”

Dr. Hashish is the founder of the National Biomechanics Institute, a Los Angeles consulting company that examines injuries and injury prevention. He confirms that a crowd surge is a sudden and rapid movement in a large crowd of people, particularly during a concert “as a surge of people moving forward trying to get in close proximity to the artists. And obviously, the problem with that is that when you have a mass of people moving together, a lot of people unfortunately get left behind. In this case, some people got obviously trampled,” he said.

The attendance of the festival at the time of Scott’s set on Saturday had reached upwards of 50,000 people. Hashish explains that once you have that many people grouped together in a tight space, “the main risk is just the fundamental lack of control over your environment,” not to mention a bit of copycat syndrome.

“What happens and what they found in these corners and in these mosh pits, in particular, is that there’s this concept of group-think where essentially somebody comes up with an idea such as the surge of the stage and then people kind of just lose themselves in the moment and they act on that and they kind of fall into the pressure of doing so even against probably their best judgment, right? And then that results, and this kind of potentially catastrophic event like what happened in this situation.”

Hashish explained that in such situations, more than half of the injuries sustained are head injuries. It was followed by lower extremities, and when coupled with being in a large crowd and being off-balance, you get this mass collection of dangerous calamities.

Dr. Rami Hashish (Credit: Dr. Hashish/Twitter)

“As people are jumping around and and doing actions, it’s kind of unpredictable,” Hashish said. “How they’re going to move is unpredictable. But what is predictable is that it’s more likely than not they’re going to leave with a head injury if they’re doing it in kind of a forceful fashion.”

Scott has a history of having hyper shows. In fact, he’s publicly encouraged fans to get rowdy for his performances. In 2019, when video surfaced of his fans breaking through a barricade at one of his shows, he reacted in his Instagram stories, “DA YOUTH DEM CONTROL THE FREQUENCY,” adding “EVERYONE HAVE FUN. RAGERS SET TONE WHEN I COME OUT TONIGHT. BE SAFE RAGE HARD. AHHHHHHHHHHH,” as reported by The LA Times

At that year’s Astroworld Fest, three people were hospitalized after a crowd stormed over security barriers. 

Prior to Saturday’s events, Houston Police Chief Troy Finner visited Scott in his trailer, expressing concerns over possible injuries that may occur during his set, as previously reported by theGrio. Finner, who’s known Scott personally for years, reportedly warned him about the “energy” of his fanbase might pose a problem, especially considering the aforementioned 2019 Astroworld Fest injuries.

So is Scott to blame? Fans seem to think so, as videos of Scott supposedly seeing audience members in disarray during a portion of his show when he’s on a cherry picker. Hashish says you can’t just blame the headliner. Other factors may have led to the crowd surge besides any supposed instigating from Scott, be it directly or indirectly. 

“What also happens is that you have these people or if you have people who may be under a bit of influence of alcohol, they may be a bit intoxicated, so their actions may be a little bit irrational or sporadic,” Hashish said. “They are responding to the songs and the music and the lights and the and the increased sound, and they’re also now responding to the people in whom are around them, right, all doing this kind of action.”

Travis Scott performs at Day 1 of the Astroworld Music Festival at NRG Park on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021, in Houston. (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP)

A lack of preparation from the security staff is also contributing factor to the tragedy. One such security guard, Darius Williams, came forward and stated that training for security staff was “brief,” instructions upon arrival were “vague” and they were “severely understaffed,” as previously reported by theGrio.

“From what I saw, there was probably one security guard for everyone, 500 to 1,000 people,” Williams said. There were 505 event security staffers, 91 armed private security officers, and 76 uniformed Houston police officers to patrol the 50,000.

Also, mosh pits and crowd surges are not new in hip-hop. Rapper/actor Ice-T once spoke during an interview on The Combat Jack Show podcast about how he noticed as far back as the 1990s while on tour with Public Enemy that fans in Europe would mosh and slam dance to Public Enemy’s songs. In 2016, Kanye West made history during his Saint Pablo Tour by performing from a levitating stage. Thousands of fans each night would notoriously mosh and slam dance underneath the stage in the general admission areas.

But none of those shows ended in a mass of people dying. Hashish said that the combination of poor security and organizer planning, the presence of small children and the visceral reaction to Scott’s music, and the group-think atmosphere among 50,000 were all contributing factors. However, he says that ultimately, “the onus ultimately by and large lies on the human being,” otherwise, the concertgoers must understand what they’re getting into, understand their surroundings and much preventative work must happen prior to the event.

“What can be done is that we educate ourselves and we understand right and have a little bit of compassion and empathy and understanding,” Hashish said.

“I want to keep going to concerts, but I also don’t want to expose myself and others to injury. So there has to be just a little bit of better wherewithal of what’s happening, right? So not to act in an irrational manner and surge the stage not to kind of get so extreme and moshing. Where could potentially cause injury? Sure, you could jump around and dance, but obviously, there’s extremes of things, right? So it’s just there’s a contact between toeing the line and passing it.”

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