What Happened At Astroworld? Crowd Safety Expert Explains : Consider This from NPR Who is to blame for the deaths of nine people at the Astroworld Festival last Friday? Houston police have opened a criminal investigation and concertgoers have already filed more than 20 lawsuits against the event organizers and rapper Travis Scott, who continued to perform for more than half an hour after officials declared a mass casualty event.

Crowd safety expert Keith Still explains the science behind how a concert crowd can transform into an uncontrollable mass that threatens human life.

Houston Chronicle music critic Joey Guerra, who attended the festival, grapples with how music fans are processing the tragedy.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment that will help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.

What Went Wrong At Astroworld? The Deadly Dynamics Of Crowd Surge

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Madeline Eskins says anyone that knows her knows she is a hardcore Travis Scott fan - or at least she was.

MADELINE ESKINS: I mean, at one point, I was really going to get a Cactus Jack tattoo, like, on my ankle or something. I was a huge - I can tell you every album. I can - I know the words to every song. There is not a single Travis Scott song that I do not know.

CORNISH: Madeline was at Astroworld in Houston, Texas, last week, the music festival founded by Travis Scott, where at least nine people were killed and hundreds were injured after the crowd became chaotic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRAVIS SCOTT: Hey - order, order, order, order. Two hands to the sky.

ESKINS: I mean, I couldn't even turn my head to talk to my boyfriend. I couldn't move my arms. I mean, I was getting - I felt like I was getting crushed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCOTT: Y'all know what y'all came to do. Chase B, let's go.

CORNISH: Madeline has been to Astroworld twice before this, but she says this time, something was different.

ESKINS: I was feeling like I couldn't breathe before he even came on stage. And, you know, a couple minutes before he came on stage is when I told my boyfriend, hey, we have to get out of here. He was like, we can't. There's nowhere to go. And I was like, we have to get out of here. He said, babe, there is no way out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOST FOREVER")

JAMES BLAKE: (Singing) Have you ever been lost? Have you ever been lost?

ESKINS: Everybody around me was screaming help. No one around - in my direct area - if they were jumping up and down, it wasn't because they were cheering. It was because they were trying to jump up and get air.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE: (Shouting, unintelligible).

CORNISH: Madeline and her attorney, Richard Hinojosa, spoke to NPR producer Brianna Scott. Madeline says she passed out, and her boyfriend had to crowd-surf her body to safety.

ESKINS: So when I woke up, I had a bottle of water in my lap. At first, my initial thought - I was like, why am I not in the medical tent? Then I realized the reason I wasn't in the medical tent is because, as soon as they put me down, they must have just gone straight back to bring more people out. Because every time the security - a security guard came back, he was dropping someone off and going back to bring people out. And I realized pretty quick - I was like, oh, my gosh. It just - it wasn't just me.

CORNISH: After Madeline realized it wasn't just her, she says her mentality shifted.

ESKINS: When I walk up and see people doing CPR, my first thing is - I have got to help these people.

CORNISH: Madeline is an ICU nurse in Texas, and she could immediately see how overwhelmed the medical staff was that night. She stayed to help perform CPR on those who were unconscious, and this was all going on as the concert continued.

ESKINS: Having to do CPR - do - I have to give chest compressions, you know, to the beat of my favorite artist - former favorite artist performing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Take him, take him. Take him. Take him. Take him. Take him, take him. There you go. Get him out of there, bro.

ESKINS: I can never enjoy his music again.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Consider this - while music fans process a tragedy, investigators are piecing together how it happened and how to prevent it from happening again.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: From NPR, I'm Audie Cornish. It's Thursday, November 11.

It's CONSIDER THIS from NPR. Now, Travis Scott is sometimes called hip-hop's king of rage, and he's been in trouble before for fan casualties at his concerts.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUTTERFLY EFFECT")

SCOTT: (Rapping) Let's go. For this life, I cannot change. I cannot change. Hidden hills...

CORNISH: Scott's been arrested at least two times - in 2015 and 2017 - for inciting riots and disorderly conduct at his shows. He pleaded guilty in both cases. Now, the rapper is being hit with dozens of lawsuits after what unfolded at Astroworld last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The first civil lawsuits have been filed against Scott, the concert's organizers, and the promoter...

CORNISH: Live Nation, which is the world's largest live events company and organizer of Astroworld, is also named in several of those suits. That company has already been linked to hundreds of deaths and injuries over the past 15 years. Now, a Texas-based security consultant for Live Nation prepared an operations plan for the festival, and it's a long document that lays out plans for responding to heat, tornadoes, bomb threats. But...

PAUL WERTHEIMER: It doesn't address dangerous standing room environments. It doesn't address when it - catastrophic situations, crowd crush, crowd collapse, surging, moshing, stage diving. It doesn't discuss anything about that crowd where the disaster occurred.

CORNISH: Paul Wertheimer is an event security consultant, and he's been involved in concert security since the 1979 Who concert in Cincinnati. Eleven people died there. Wertheimer told NPR's Greg Allen that at events like this, security personnel must be on hand to keep a close eye on crowd density.

WERTHEIMER: They monitor them. They don't let them get out of control. They don't put more people in the space knowing that crowd surfing may occur.

CORNISH: Now, the event had security personnel, and the Houston Fire Department was in contact with the police, but they had difficulty reaching the paramedics who were contracted to treat emergencies at the festival. County officials have called for an independent investigation into what happened. Paul Wertheimer says that investigation should not just be about the artist.

WERTHEIMER: If you're going to investigate the artist, you have to investigate the other parties who planned, managed, profited from and approved this faulty plan.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: The question that keeps coming up about Astroworld is how a concert crowd could transform into an uncontrollable mass that threatens human life.

KEITH STILL: Imagine you've got people on all sides. Even a slight movement gets amplified throughout the crowd because as the mass of one body pushes against another, it gathers momentum.

CORNISH: Keith Still is a crowd safety expert. He says very small movements in a high-density environment can create what's called a shock wave. I want to pause and warn you here that there's some graphic details that might be upsetting for some listeners.

STILL: So initially, you'll see crowd sway, and at that point, you should be trying to unwind the crowd density. But once you get the crowd surge, you can then result in what's called a progressive crowd collapse. So the crowd actually falls on top of each other. And at that point, as people struggle to get up, arms and legs get twisted together. Blood supply starts to be reduced to the brain. It takes 30 seconds before you lose consciousness. And around about six minutes, you're into compressive or restrictive asphyxia. That's generally the attributed cause of death - not crushing, but suffocation.

CORNISH: Keith Still has done consulting on events as well, and I spoke to him about what can be done to prevent something like this from happening in the first place.

STILL: An appropriate crowd management plan, trained crowd managers, a design which is fit for its intended purpose - so for a clinky, plunky, la, la, la-type (ph) band, this design may well work perfectly. But you put a high-energy performer and a high-energy crowd and high density in that same space, then you have high risk. So understanding the difference - what works, what doesn't work - that's the science of crowd dynamics.

CORNISH: I noticed you talked about the energy coming from the stage. And for - by way of background, people have been reporting about the previous occasions that this performer, Travis Scott, had been arrested for reckless conduct at shows or inciting a riot. Is that something that really does make a difference, kind of how the performer engages what's going on?

STILL: Yes. And that's why you design your system around that type of performance. In Denmark, for instance, Roskilde - they could have a performer of this nature on there because they have penned areas and restrict the number of people in each section, making sure there is plenty of space for that crowd to move and enjoy themselves without the risk of crushing.

CORNISH: Once a problem begins to develop and a crowd becomes too dense or rowdy, what can be done to reassert control, to calm things down?

STILL: Well, the performer can stop. I mean, we've seen a number of instances - in fact, you go to YouTube, and you see lots of examples where the performer stops. The show stops. And they communicate with the crowd. Make sure that everybody's on your feet, and that can then restart. So there are processes and procedures in place. But once you're in a high-density surge environment, there's very little you can do as an individual. It is up to things like the building design or the operations manager or the safety design of any system to make sure they've got a safe environment. So you should never be in that position.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Keith Still, professor of crowd science at the University of Suffolk.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Travis Scott has hundreds of thousands of fans. I mean, Astroworld's 100,000 tickets sold out within an hour of going on sale in May this year. And in the aftermath of his concert last week, Scott actually spoke out about what happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SCOTT: You know, my fans - my fans, like - my fans really mean the world to me, and I always just really want to leave them with a positive experience. I could just never imagine the severity of the situation.

JOEY GUERRA: The exchange of energy between him and the crowd is - it's honestly remarkable.

CORNISH: Joey Guerra is a music critic for the Houston Chronicle. He was at Astroworld, and he wrote an essay about the culture of the Travis Scott fandom and how this event may change the way his fans view him as an artist. Guerra spoke to NPR's Ailsa Chang.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: You also point out in your essay that very young people were killed or injured, and you yourself have a 10-year-old son. You wrote about how you have tried to pass on your love of music and live events to your own son. How are you talking about all of this with him right now?

GUERRA: He's 10 years old, so he just naturally has a lot of questions about everything. And, you know, he knew very early on that something had happened. You know, when you're that age, I think - like, his comment was, wow, these people paid $300 to get in and then they died, you know? So he's trying to kind of make sense of it in his head, you know? I mean, I'm sure the last thing anybody would think about was that, you know, people paid money and then got killed. But for him, I mean, that's, I think, a way to process it, you know? And he just - you know, I've taken him to shows with me, like I said, and I know that he's been - I've seen it in his eyes that he's just like, whoa, whoa, there's so many people here. I'm sure he's going to have more questions in the coming days because he's seen me and heard me on the phone and seen me writing stories, and he knows what I do. So it's tough because...

CHANG: Yeah.

GUERRA: ...I don't want to not tell him the truth. I feel like it's best that he understand these things. But at the same time, I don't think it's necessary for him to, like, see these videos and really hear these explicit details, you know?

CHANG: You wrote about how this whole experience has got you rethinking everything when it comes to - not just live events, but music, especially, you know, during this tail end of the pandemic. Can you talk about that?

GUERRA: I was very nervous to go to this show. You know, I've kind of held off as long as I could covering live shows because of COVID, you know? I don't want...

CHANG: Yeah.

GUERRA: ...To get sick. I don't want to get my son sick - you know, those types of things. So this was a big step, I think, not just for me. But for a lot of people, this was their first show in a long time, much less their first big event like this. So, you know, moving forward, it absolutely makes me think twice. It makes me nervous about going out to cover an event like this.

CHANG: What about how Travis Scott's music might be regarded after all this? I mean, there are obviously so many people who love Travis Scott's music, who look up to him. And, I mean, how do you think his fans will relate to his music, take in his music, after all of this?

GUERRA: If someone hasn't been to a Travis Scott show, it's really kind of hard to accurately describe what that is like. I mean, every time I've seen him - I think I've probably seen Travis 10 times at this point - the exchange of energy between him and the crowd is - it's honestly remarkable. You feel it, even if you're not participating in that. You literally feel it in your body - this kind of jolt of electricity and, you know, adrenaline. You know, it just kind of courses through the whole venue.

And these fans of his - a lot of them are young guys, 16 to 21 years old. They stand in line at merch booths for three hours to get a T-shirt, you know? I mean, they say Travis Scott saved my life. Travis Scott gave me a sense of belonging, you know? Travis Scott made me a part of a community. Will that change? I mean, I think it will change for some people. But I think that bond is so tight that it's still going to be there for a lot of people. I mean, there's a lot of blame right now being placed on him. But I think as we move forward and we learn more and we find out more and we see what the promoter and the organizers' true roles were in this, I think there will still be a good portion of people who really still feel connected to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Joey Guerra, music critic for the Houston Chronicle.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Audie Cornish.

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