EXPLAINER: How and why do crowd surges turn deadly?

Oct 29, 2022, 1:03 PM | Updated: 1:18 pm
FILE - Stewards and supporters tend and care for wounded supporters on the field at Hillsborough St...

FILE - Stewards and supporters tend and care for wounded supporters on the field at Hillsborough Stadium, in Sheffield, England, April 15, 1989. The crowd deaths from a Halloween festival in Seoul, South Korea, on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022 have added to the long list of people who have been crushed at a major event. Such tragedies have been occurring around the world for a long time at concerts, sports events and religious gatherings. (AP Photo, File)

(AP Photo, File)

It happened at a music festival in Houston, a soccer stadium in England, during a hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, in a Chicago nightclub, and countless other gatherings: Large crowds surge toward exits, onto playing fields or press up against a stage with such force that people are literally squeezed to death.

And it has happened again, during Halloween festivities in the South Korean capital Seoul, where a crowd pushed forward, the narrow street they were on acting as a vice, leaving more than 140 people dead and 150 more injured.

The risk of such tragic accidents, which receded when venues closed and people stayed home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, has returned.

To be sure, most events where large crowds gather happen without injury or death, with fans coming and going without incident. But those that went horribly wrong shared some common traits. Here is a look at why that happens:

HOW DO PEOPLE DIE AT THESE EVENTS?

While movies that show crowds desperately try to flee suggest getting trampled might be the cause of most of the deaths, the reality is most people who die in a crowd surge are suffocated.

What can’t be seen are forces so strong that they can bend steel. That means something as simple as drawing breath becomes impossible. People die standing up and those who fall die because the bodies on top of them exert such pressure that breathing becomes impossible.

“As people struggle to get up, arms and legs get twisted together. Blood supply starts to be reduced to the brain,” G. Keith Still, a visiting professor of crowd science at the University of Suffolk in England, told NPR after the Astroworld crowd surge in Houston last November. “It takes 30 seconds before you lose consciousness, and around about six minutes, you’re into compressive or restrictive asphyxia. That’s a generally the attributed cause of death — not crushing, but suffocation.”

WHAT IS THE EXPERIENCE OF BEING SWEPT INTO A CRUSH OF PEOPLE LIKE?

Survivors tell stories of gasping for breath, being pushed deeper under what feels like an avalanche of flesh as others, desperate to escape, climb over them. Of being pinned against doors that won’t open and fences that won’t give.

“Survivors described being gradually compressed, unable to move, their heads ‘locked between arms and shoulders … faces gasping in panic,'” according to a report after a human crush in 1989 at the Hillsborough soccer stadium in Sheffield, England, led to the death of nearly 100 Liverpool fans. “They were aware that people were dying and they were helpless to save themselves.”

WHAT TRIGGERS SUCH EVENTS?

At a Chicago nightclub in 2003, a crowd surge began after security guards used pepper spray to break up a fight. Twenty-one people died in the resulting crowd surge. And this month in Indonesia, 131 people were killed when tear gas was fired into a half-locked stadium, triggering a crush at the exits.

In Nepal in 1988, it was a sudden downpour that sent soccer fans rushing toward locked stadium exits, leading to the deaths of 93 fans. In the latest incident in South Korea, some news outlets reported that the crush occurred after a large number of people rushed to a bar after hearing that an unidentified celebrity was there.

But Still, the British professor who has testified as an expert witness in court cases involving crowds, pointed to a variation of the age-old example of someone shouting “Fire” in a crowded movie theater. He told the AP last year that what lights the fuse of such a rush for safety in the U.S., more than in any other country, is the sound of someone shouting: “He has a gun!”

WHAT ROLE DID THE PANDEMIC PLAY?

Stadiums are filling up again. During the pandemic, as games went forward, teams took some creative steps to make things look somewhat normal. Cardboard figures of fans were placed in some of the seats and crowd noise was piped in — a sports version of a comedy show laugh track.

Now, though, the crowds are back, and the danger has returned.

“As soon as you add people into the mix, there will always be a risk,” Steve Allen of Crowd Safety, a U.K.-based consultancy engaged in major events around the world, told the AP in 2021.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


              FILE - In this Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015, file photo, Muslim pilgrims pray at the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque in the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The crowd deaths from a Halloween festival in Seoul, South Korea, on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022 have added to the long list of people who have been crushed at a major event. Such tragedies have been occurring around the world for a long time at concerts, sports events and religious gatherings.   (AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy, File)
            
              FILE - Stewards and supporters tend and care for wounded supporters on the field at Hillsborough Stadium, in Sheffield, England, April 15, 1989. The crowd deaths from a Halloween festival in Seoul, South Korea, on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022 have added to the long list of people who have been crushed at a major event. Such tragedies have been occurring around the world for a long time at concerts, sports events and religious gatherings.  (AP Photo, File)
            FILE - Travis Scott performs at Day 1 of the Astroworld Music Festival at NRG Park on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021, in Houston. The crowd deaths from a Halloween festival in Seoul, South Korea, on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022 have added to the long list of people who have been crushed at a major event. Such tragedies have been occurring around the world for a long time at concerts, sports events and religious gatherings.  (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP, File) FILE - A security guard and an unidentified man look at an area with shows and clothes strewn around where several people were killed and others injured, as they were caught in a surging crowd entering Cincinnati's Riverfront Coliseum for a Who concert on Dec. 3, 1979.  The crowd deaths from a Halloween festival in Seoul, South Korea, on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022 have added to the long list of people who have been crushed at a major event. Such tragedies have been occurring around the world for a long time at concerts, sports events and religious gatherings. (AP Photo/Brian Horton, File)

AP

A woman pumps gas at a GetGo Mini Mart in Valencia, Pa., on Monday, Jan. 23, 2023. On Tuesday, the ...
Associated Press

US consumer confidence lags as 2023 gets under way

American consumers are kicking off 2023 a bit less confident than they were at the end of last year as inflation and the possibility of a recession loom. The Conference Board reported Tuesday that its consumer confidence index slipped to a still-optimistic 107.1 in January, down from 109 in December. Last month’s reading was the […]
9 hours ago
The Southern Poverty Law Center's Esteban Gil poses for a portrait at Jefferson Recreation Center i...
Associated Press

Why workers at growing number of nonprofits are unionizing

Over his six years at the Southern Poverty Law Center, Esteban Gil watched colleague after colleague leave. Part of it was the nature of the work: helping people in immigrant detention and in prison. It is high-stakes, high-stress work. But there was also something deeply wrong with the way the group operated and the very […]
9 hours ago
FILE - Abortion-rights protestors march between the Indiana Statehouse and the Indiana State Librar...
Associated Press

Indiana justices won’t hear 2nd abortion case for now

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana’s high court said it will not immediately consider a challenge to the state’s abortion ban that is based on the argument that the law violates some people’s religious freedoms, leaving that decision to an appeals court, at least for now. The state Supreme Court issued an order Monday saying the state […]
9 hours ago
Wellwishers run after Pope Francis following his arrival in Kinshasa, Congo, Tuesday Jan. 31, 2023....
Associated Press

Pope’s Africa trip spotlights conflict, and church’s future

KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Pope Francis began a six-day visit to Congo and South Sudan on Tuesday, aiming to bring a message of peace to two countries riven by poverty, conflict and what Francis has called a lingering “colonialist mentality” that still considers Africa ripe for exploitation. Francis landed at Kinshasa’s airport and was greeted […]
9 hours ago
FILE - A logo on a vehicle at a Ford dealership in Springfield, Pa., Tuesday, April 26, 2022. The U...
Associated Press

US probes complaints of parts flying off of Ford Explorers

DETROIT (AP) — The U.S. government’s road safety agency is investigating complaints that windshield trim panels can fly off of Ford Explorers while they’re traveling at highway speeds. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says it has 164 complaints about the trim pieces detaching on 2011 through 2019 Explorer SUVs. The probe covers about 1.86 […]
9 hours ago
FILE - Elon Musk departs the Phillip Burton Federal Building and United States Court House in San F...
Associated Press

Justice Department seeks Tesla automated driving documents

The U.S. Justice Department has requested documents from Tesla Inc. related to its Autopilot and “Full Self-Driving” features, according to a regulatory filing. “To our knowledge no government agency in any ongoing investigation has concluded that any wrongdoing occurred,” Tesla said in the filing Tuesday with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The Austin, Texas-based electric […]
9 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

(Desert Institute for Spine Care photo)...
DESERT INSTITUTE FOR SPINE CARE

Why DISC is world renowned for back and neck pain treatments

Fifty percent of Americans and 90% of people at least 50 years old have some level of degenerative disc disease.
(Photo via MLB's Arizona Fall League / Twitter)...
Arizona Fall League

Top prospects to watch at this year’s Arizona Fall League

One of the most exciting elements of the MLB offseason is the Arizona Fall League, which began its 30th season Monday.
...
Quantum Fiber

Stream 4K and more with powerful, high-speed fiber internet

Picking which streaming services to subscribe to are difficult choices, and there is no room for internet that cannot handle increased demands.
EXPLAINER: How and why do crowd surges turn deadly?