How To Keep Crowds From Getting Out Of Control

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Guest

John Seabrook, staff writer, The New Yorker

We move through crowds every day, in subway stations and on city blocks, through grocery stores aisles and retail stores. Crowds often define our movements in public, but it can get dangerous when things go awry, or a crowd moves beyond human control.

NEAL CONAN, host:

When people die in stampedes at a rock concert in Cincinnati, a soccer stadium in England or a Black Friday sale on Long Island, the crowd always gets the blame. Barbarians, they're called, a mob, a panicked mob. But in an article in last week's New Yorker magazine, John Seabrook explains that the way these events are portrayed after the fact is not necessarily the way they occur. For one thing, crowd disasters almost always happen not because people are running from something they fear, but towards something they want.

If you have been swept up in a crowd and the situation got out of control, call and tell us your story. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

John Seabrook is a staff writer for The New Yorker, and he joins us from our bureau in New York. Thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. JOHN SEABROOK (Staff writer, The New Yorker): Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: And let's start with the story you start with: Wal-Mart, Black Friday.

Mr. SEABROOK: Right. Yeah. A lot of people probably remember this. It was 2008, Black Friday, 2008. There was a long lights - long line outside of Wal-Mart in Long Island, in Valley Stream, Long Island. And Wal-Mart wasn't sure what to do. They had guys who are large, but they weren't trained well in, well, crowd dynamic, certainly, not even security. They put them in the vestibule just before they opened the doors at 5 a.m. The doors actually got blown open by the crowd. A man was run over or hit by a door, according to some accounts, and died, a worker, a Wal-Mart worker.

And so my story is about the aftermath of that. There was no criminal charges filed because Long Island made a deal with Wal-Mart. But OSHA cited Wal-Mart for putting the worker into an unsafe work situation. And...

CONAN: And that raises the question as to why Wal-Mart has spent $2 million to fight a $7,000 fine.

Mr. SEABROOK: Right. It's a $7,000 fine, and Wal-Mart has spent $2 million fighting the case, which still hasn't been decided. We're waiting for a ruling any day now. I think part of the answer there is that Wal-Mart, in particular, and most retailers in general, really don't want OSHA involved in how they manage crowds. Because basically, the way things stand now, you don't really have to spend money on crowd management if you're holding a big sale, if you're - you've got a new iPhone or Harry Potter book or whatever, you know, new videogame, and then these things happen from time to time. You can basically just sort of invite people to line up and open the doors and they come. But if OSHA wins this case, basically it establishes a precedent. And it could mean that every time a retailer holds a big sale, they're going to have to spend more money and hire a professional crowd manager to help manage the crowd.

CONAN: And we've seen some changes in this regard. For example, I went to Times Square several years ago with my son and was surprised. I just thought it was a big crowd of people. In fact, the crowd was divided up into small cells, surrounded by metal barricades.

Mr. SEABROOK: Right. The New York City police force have started to divide big crowds up into small crowds. It's actually a very smart idea. Some people might feel that it's less revelatory to be kind of penned into a small crowd. And let's face it, some people go to these big Black Friday sales for sort of - you know, it's a big social event. People like waiting in long lines. And they like the thrill of running into the store and being the one that grabs that limited sale priced item. So, you know, there's that part of it too. It's probably going to take a little of that spirit of fun away, but it'll make it safer.

CONAN: Make it safer. Yet that spirit of fun, you say, in some senses, we behave differently when we gather in large enough numbers to form a crowd.

Mr. SEABROOK: Well, it depends what the crowd is there for, and you - as you said, to lead into the show. Although crowd disasters in which people die are often described as stampedes and panics. In the West, at least, they're usually very different.

The dynamics of how they occur are quite different. There are crushes, really. What happens is, you know, a lot of people come and line up and want to get into a place, not leave a place, even though most public auditoriums are designed for fire regulations, which is getting people out. And there are all kinds of little standards so that the doors will blow out, but they won't blow in, and that kind of thing.

And then - what kills people, often, is not that they get run over by other people, but that they get crushed - sometimes still on their feet - by the force of the - when people get very densely packed into a space, particularly if the people in the back can't see what the people in the front are experiencing, the people in the back push forward. The people in the front get crushed up against the doors, they then push back, and these shockwaves kind of develop through the crowd.

And if you get hit by one of those shockwaves, it can knock the air out of your lungs. And before you have a chance to take a breath, you can suffocate and die on your feet. And that's what often happens in these disasters.

CONAN: A seminal event in your story, and indeed in this investigation, this whole idea of crowd management, is a Who concert back in Cincinnati.

Mr. SEABROOK: Right. In 1979, 11 people died in Cincinnati while waiting to get in to a Who concert, and it was really - it's not the largest crowd event, because there was a disaster. There was a larger loss of life in Chicago in 2004, the E2 nightclub.

But, in a way, it's the iconic event because it was rock and roll. It was young people. And the way people reacted to it, particularly the media, the crowd was roundly vilified. It was drugs that had done this. It was rock and roll. It was, as you said earlier, barbarians.

The crowd was treated like it was their fault, and, in fact, it was not their fault at all. It was open seating. They - way too many people came to get the very best seats, which only happened if you were in the front of the line. The band started late, their sound check late.

The crowd in the back thought the band had started, started pushing forward. The people at the doors, the people taking the tickets thought the crowd was trying to rush the doors, and so they wouldn't open the doors, even after the time that the door should have opened had passed. And by the time they did open the doors, 11 people had been crushed up against them.

CONAN: We're talking with John Seabrook of The New Yorker about "Crush Point," an article about crowd dynamics in last week's New Yorker.

We'd like to hear from those of you who've been in a crowd that got out of control. Tell us your story: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Gordon is on the line from Wilmington in North Carolina.

GORDON (Caller): Hi, there.

CONAN: Hi.

GORDON: A similar thing happened to me, except it was actually after a concert. It was in Atlanta, after the Rolling Stones, a long, long time ago. And we went to the MARTA, which is the subway there and - along with everyone else. And we were excited because we were one of the first ones on the track to be there as the train pulled up.

And the crowd piled in behind us, and then all the way up the stairs or escalator. And as soon as - so it was a full, very full platform. And as soon as you could hear the train coming down the tracks, the crowd just started inching forward and almost pushed everyone along the front into the tracks.

And we were grabbing onto people's clothes and hair, just trying to hold on and screaming and no one could hear. No one knew what was going on, but they were literally pushing us into the tracks.

CONAN: And John Seabrook, that sounds like a classic example of what can happen.

GORDON: And then there's nothing to hold onto, you know.

Mr. SEABROOK: And that's really scary. I mean, what often happens is, I mean, you don't have the train involved, but you have some people - if you're in a big crowd, some people will go down. And then what's called a crowd collapse will form, where when you're pushed up against people who have fallen over, you have nothing to support yourself. So you fall over.

And then other people fall over you, and that whole knot of people get so densely packed that you can't breathe inside. That happened at the Pearl - when Pearl Jam was playing in Roskilde in Denmark in 2000. Nine people died in one of those.

CONAN: Gordon, you still vividly remember the incident, obviously.

GORDON: I do. In fact, I actually called - I called the subway - Metro in D.C. when they were planning the inauguration. They were expecting so many crowds. I actually called them and told them about the incident to warn them that it could happen. And, you know, a little neurotic about it now, but it's - and no one was hurt, fortunately.

CONAN: Well, Gordon, thanks very much. And we're thankful that nobody was hurt. But speaking of a little neurotic about it, that incident we mentioned in Cincinnati at the Who concert spawned a one person into making this his life's work.

Mr. SEABROOK: And he - yes. He's name is Paul Wertheimer. He's a big part of my story and a big part of the OSHA case, because he was at the Cincinnati concert in 1979. He worked for the city. He saw what had happened. And then he saw the - in the aftermath, how all of the people who might have shared responsibility, the promoter and the venue operator, the police, all managed to avoid any responsibility, and the way the crowd was vilified. And he participated in the task force that reported on what had actually happened.

And then, you know, as years went by, these events would happen again. And they - it was always the same response. The organizers would always say, oh, we couldn't have anticipated this crowd - which is the exactly what Wal-Mart said, actually, in 2008. There's no way we could have known - we could - this is a freak event. And Paul would say, oh, no, wait a second. You could have known, because I've got a report right here that explains exactly how to avoid this kind of thing. And so he became this guy - kind of eccentric guy - mosh pits became his sort of laboratory as - of crowd studies.

Because mosh pits are sort of interesting because - we all know what mosh pits are, I think. They are down at the front of the stage in a metal show or at a grunge show. They started with grunge. People push each other. These waves start to develop back and forth. You can get slammed, and you can get hurt. Paul would go into those things and sort of watch the dynamics of crowds ebb and flow, and then write up what he saw.

And it - so he became uniquely this kind of advocate for the crowd, this kind of voice of the crowd, the voice of the crowd never had. And the Wal-Mart case, he is - that voice is now potentially hugely significant, because he was the main witness for OSHA in that case.

CONAN: You mean expert witness.

Mr. SEABROOK: I mean, expert witness.

CONAN: Yeah. John Seabrook is our guest. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker. His piece was titled "Crush Point."

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And here's an email we have from Timothy: I was nearly crushed by the crowd waiting to get in to the rescheduled Who concert at the St. Paul Civic Center. I've never been more helpless.

And that speaks to both the idea that, you know, once you're in this thing, it's hardly under anybody's control. But the other point you make in the article, we tend to think of these crushes as the result of panic. But in the cases of these concerts and then getting onto the subway platform and trying to get on the subway, going towards something you want and fear you may not be included in, as opposed to a panic that ensues when somebody shouts fire.

Mr. SEABROOK: Yeah. It's interesting. There's this notion that the crowds panic and there are just notion that mass panic sort of takes over crowds. But I looked at that quite a bit. I actually think that mass panic is a myth. I mean, yes, if there's a fire, a certain number of people are going to run in a panic state from that fire. But even in situations where fire has killed hundreds of people, in the aftermath, people have gone in and examined how people behave and, in fact, you know, certain small groups of people didn't panic. Some people actually lost their lives trying to help other people.

But there's this sort of - and it goes back to the 19th century, this kind of scary notion of the crowd. The French author, Gustave Le Bon, was one of the people who promulgated this idea that the crowd is a primitive - representatives a sort of primitive man. And that none of the civilizing characteristics that stop us from hurting each other exists inside a crowd, and it's just a dog-eat-dog in the crowd.

CONAN: Let's go next to Kristen, Kristen with us from Kansas City.

KRISTEN (Caller): Hi. I was calling about the experience I had on the Golden Gate Bridge when they celebrated the 50th anniversary of the bridge. And whoever planned it made the mistake of not having the traffic go, you know, in one direction on one side and then coming out the other side. And so they were letting people on both sides. And I didn't even get over the water before we were completely compressed.

I was separated from my group, and there was a bicycle that was being forced between my legs. I started hyperventilating, which I've never done in my life, and some strangers lifted me up and over the bike until we could get off the bridge, and we were barely on it. And there was no panic. It was - everybody was calm. But it was like, how are we going to get off of here?

CONAN: And did anybody get hurt?

KRISTEN: Yeah. I believe that several people died. I think there were some people in the middle who had a heart attack. Somebody said somebody jumped off the bridge. I don't know if that's true.

SEABROOK: You know, what that makes me think of is - well, two things actually. There was a panic quite like that - or I say panic. I shouldn't be using that word. There was a crowd disaster quite like that on the Brooklyn Bridge seven days after it opened.

People were walking across it, and somebody shouted that the bridge was falling. And everybody ran for the stairs, and somebody fell on the stairs, and there was a pileup and six or seven people died. There was a fantastic account of it in The New York Times.

The other thing I wanted to say - and this is in the piece - is that one of the reasons that crowd disasters happen to humans and not to, say, ants, is that ants have a ability to communicate across a swarm using chemicals.

So they - you don't see a big ant pile up if you ever sort of watch ants. They are sort of well-ordered, even though there are a lot of them. Whereas when there get to be a certain number of people, the people in the back, like I said earlier, don't know what's going on to the people in the middle, or the people in the middle don't know what's going on in the front.

We don't have an ability to communicate physically across the swarm. I mean, on the Internet, you know, we have smart swarms. But when you actually get a crowd of bodies together, we've never evolved the ability to do that for whatever reason, maybe because there didn't used to be that many of us. And it's kind of ironic result of the success of our species that now we are, you know, capable of forming large crowds. And as the population keeps growing and people keep moving to cities, they're just going to get bigger and bigger.

And maybe eventually we'll figure out how to function in a crowd. But that's why these things happen, because we don't have that - fish can do it, birds can do it, ants can do it, but we can't do it.

KRISTEN: We didn't have cell phones, either, so we couldn't even tell people, you know, call anyone and say don't let more people on. And so when I was getting off, I would say, don't go on, don't go on. Because there was really nobody in charge, directing people.

CONAN: Kristen...

KRISTEN: And, in fact, the bridge, which normally sits in a swayed, upward position, was flat. They have pictures of it. It leveled off...

CONAN: Hmm.

KRISTEN: ...based on the weight.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. We're glad you made it out.

KRISTEN: Thanks. Great show.

CONAN: And we just have a few seconds left, but John Seabrook, would you anticipate, whatever the result of this law suit, things are going to change, people are going to have to look at this more carefully?

SEABROOK: They already have changed. I went to the Wal-Mart Black Friday sale, the last one, in 2010. And anyway, I went to one of those. First of all, they no longer call it Blitz Day, which we used to call it. Now they call it The Event. And at the Valley Stream store, they had so much crowd management - and in particular people on platforms with megaphones, they could see in the back and could say what was going on. So yes, things have already changed, and I think regardless of the outcome of this case, they will continue to change.

CONAN: John Seabrook, a staff writer at The New Yorker. You can find his article, "Crush Point," in last week's issue.

Thanks very much.

SEABROOK: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Tomorrow, we'll look at the dysfunction that's all too common in death investigations. Join us for that.

This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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