As he lay on the ground with thousands of concertgoers surging around him, Evan Pond had one simple thought: I’m not going to make it.
“I found it really hard to breathe, honestly. I thought I was going to die,” he said, recalling the horror of Friday night’s Astroworld Fest in Houston.
Pond, a 16-year-old resident of Simcoe, Ont., fell to the ground as the crowd surged when Toronto music superstar Drake appeared on stage with headliner Travis Scott. He stayed there for two or three songs. As he lay there, he saw “piles” of other concert goers around him, some passing out and spitting up blood. One girl turned to ask him if she was going to survive.
“I didn’t know what to tell her,” said Pond, who travelled to Texas by himself last Wednesday.
Eight people are dead, and hundreds injured, after the crowed surged to the stage at the concert.
Now, as local police sift through the evidence with the FBI’s assistance, more than a dozen lawsuits are attempting to answer a basic question: Who’s to blame for the tragedy?
Music industry professionals, crowd control experts, legal analysts and concertgoers say there’s more than enough blame to go around. Scott and Drake, as well as concert promoters Live Nation and ScoreMore, are among those named in the lawsuits.
Eric Alper, a veteran Toronto concert promoter and music industry PR consultant, says keeping concertgoers safe isn’t just one person’s or one organization’s responsibility.
“It’s everybody’s responsibility. It’s the artist’s responsibility to take a look out and keep the audience happy and keep them safe, as much as they possibly can. It’s the city’s responsibility to make sure that those people who are having the event are abiding by the legal rules. And it’s the promoter’s responsibility to make sure that tickets aren’t oversold, that they’re not going above capacity,” said Alper, who noted that Scott had twice previously been convicted for encouraging fans to rush the stage and elude security barriers at other concerts.
In the NRG Park venue, which can hold up to 200,000 people depending on how seating and stages are configured, a crowd estimated at 50,000 surged towards the stage during Scott’s set.
While that’s only a quarter of the overall capacity, what matters is the actual area where the concert was taking place, says G. Keith Still, one of the world’s top experts on crowd control. And that area appeared to have been densely packed, said Still, who has consulted with police forces and governments around the world, and testified in hundreds of court cases.
“If I were an expert witness in this case, there would be some very damning evidence there, just based on the site design,” Still said, noting that there was effectively only one exit from the area where concertgoers were.
University of Houston law professor Meredith J. Duncan said the case will almost certainly end with millions of dollars in damages being paid out, and will likely be settled before any trial.
“This is not a frivolous lawsuit. I’d be surprised if it actually goes to trial, but if it does, there’s the potential for major, major damages,” said Duncan, adding that Scott’s prior behaviour is something juries and judges would be likely to consider when assessing blame. So, too, will Live Nation’s and ScoreMore’s decisions to book Scott despite that history, she added.
Jerry Andrews, president of the Dallas Trial Lawyers Association, agreed that Scott is likely in legal jeopardy.
“You’ve got an artist who’s been down this road before. He’s faced criminal penalties for very similar behaviour, so it will be hard for him to say ‘I had no idea this could happen,’ ” said Andrews, a veteran personal injury lawyer.
Even though Drake wasn’t the headlining performer, one suit claims he was still involved in creating the conditions for the crowd to lose control.
“As ‘Drake’ came onstage alongside of ‘Travis Scott’ he helped incite the crowd even though he knew of ‘Travis Scott’s’ prior conduct,” reads part of a suit filed by Texas resident Kristian Paredes, who was injured at the event.
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“Yet ‘Drake’ put himself out on stage along side of ‘Travis Scott’ and continued to be on stage performing along side with ‘Travis Scott’ as the crowd became out of control. ‘Drake’ even continued to perform on stage while the crowd mayhem continued,” the suit reads.
The Toronto-born artist posted his reaction to the event on Instagram, promising to be “of service.”
“My heart is broken for the families and friends of those who lost their lives and for anyone who is suffering,” he wrote. “I will continue to pray for all of them, and will be of service in any way I can.”
Live Nation and ScoreMore have said they’re co-operating with official investigations, including sharing security camera footage of the event, and delaying dismantling of the stage setup.
What matters most in preventing tragedies like Astroworld, the deadly Hillsborough Stadium disaster which saw almost 100 people killed in England in 1989, or even some of the deadly stampedes in Mecca during the Hajj, is making sure crowd density doesn’t get too high, said Still.
He likened the density breaking point to the red line on your car’s tachometer.
“What happens if you rev the engine above the red line? There’s a good chance, a good probability that it’s going to fail or blow up or seize up. It’s the same with crowd density,” Still said. “High-density crowds and high-energy environments combined have a high risk of failure. They’re in the red zone of your tachometer, so to speak.”
Venues and event organizers also need to have a way of monitoring crowd density in real-time, and a way of mitigating things, like multiple exits, or shutting down the event, he added.
But stopping a concert prematurely can inflame an already volatile situation, warned Alper.
“Absolutely that can lead to more problems. And it has happened. We saw in Woodstock ’99 where they stopped the show, tens of thousands of young people started to riot and create fires and sexually assault people. They were angry, they were pent-up,” he said.
That’s why other safeguards also need to be in place and are the responsibility of event organizers, rather than eventgoers, Still stressed.
“There is guidance and legislation in every country that there’s a duty of care to provide a safe environment. You’re hosting the goddamned event, you make sure that it’s safe enough to get those people in. If you don’t provide a safe environment, that’s when your negligence claims start to come into play,” Still said.
Event organizers are often tempted to sell more tickets than they should, simply because of financial considerations, he said, pointing to Fyre Festival as an example. He called for more regulation of the events industry, saying that right now, almost anyone can hang out their shingle as a concert or event promoter.
“That’s the fundamental issue. The industry isn’t regulated,” Still said.
But, added Alper, no matter how many policy safeguards are put in place, people can still find a way around them.
“It’s human nature that no amount of laws and rules are going to be able to govern a powder keg situation like we saw in Houston. I think there’s a lot of blame to be had, and it could be years until we find out what was really going on.”
Josh Rubin is a Toronto-based business reporter. Follow him on Twitter: @starbeer
Alex McKeen is a Vancouver-based reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @alex_mckeen
Ashleigh-Rae Thomas is a reporter for the Star’s radio room based in Toronto. Reach Ashleigh-Rae via email: [email protected]
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