HOUSTON — The crowd at a music festival in Houston suddenly burst onto the stage during a performance by rapper Travis Scott, pushing fans so tight they couldn’t breathe or move their arms and eight people died in the chaos.
The pandemonium unfolded Friday night at Astroworld, a sold-out, two-day event in NRG Park with an estimated 50,000 attendees. As a timer clicked to the start of the performance, the audience pressed forward.
“As soon as he jumped on stage, it was like an energy took over and everything went haywire,” said concertgoer Niaara Goods. “Suddenly your ribs are bruised. You have someone’s arm around your neck. You try to breathe, but you can’t.’
Goods said she was so desperate to get out that she bit a man on the shoulder to get him to move.
The ages of the dead ranged from 14 to 27, and 13 people were still hospitalized Saturday, Mayor Sylvester Turner said. He called the disaster “a tragedy on many different levels” and said it was too early to draw conclusions about what went wrong.
“It’s very possible that this tragedy is the result of unpredictable events, of circumstances coming together that could not possibly have been prevented,” said Justice Lina Hidalgo, Harris County’s highest-ranking official. “But until we figure that out, I’ll ask the hard questions.”
Experts who have studied deaths from crowds say they are often the result of density — too many people crammed into a small space. The crowd often runs away from a perceived threat or toward something they want, such as an artist, before hitting a barrier.
G. Keith Still, visiting professor of crowd science at the University of Suffolk in the United Kingdom, has testified as an expert witness in court cases involving crowds. He said he usually doesn’t look at eyewitness accounts in the early stages of analyzing an incident because emotions can cloud the picture and witnesses can only see what’s right around them.
Based on fire codes, the venue could have held 200,000 people, but city officials limited attendance to 50,000, Houston fire chief Samuel Peña said.
“It was the crowd control at the point of the stage that was the problem, especially when the crowd started flocking to the stage,” Peña said.
The deaths were reminiscent of a 1979 The Who concert that killed 11 people when thousands of fans tried to break into Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum. Other past catastrophes include the deaths of 97 people at a crowded Hillsborough Stadium in 1989 in Sheffield, England, and numerous disasters related to the annual Hajj in Saudi Arabia.
People in the Houston crowd reported a lot of pushing and pulling during the performances prior to Scott’s set.
When Scott took the stage, it seemed like the audience rushed forward in an attempt to get closer to the stage, said Nick Johnson, a high school student from the Houston suburb of Friendswood, who was at the concert.
“Everyone passed out around you and everyone tried to help each other. But you just couldn’t move. You couldn’t do anything. You can’t even lift your arms,” Johnson said. “It just got worse and worse.”
Johnson said fans started crushing each other and people started screaming. He said it felt like 100 degrees in the crowd.
Scott seemed aware that something was going on in the crowd, but he may not have understood the gravity of the situation, Johnson said.
A video posted on social media showed Scott at one point stopping the concert and asking for help for someone in the audience: “Safety, someone is helping very quickly.”
In a tweet posted Saturday, Scott said he was “absolutely devastated by what happened last night”. He pledged to work with the Houston community to heal and support the families in need.
Amy Harris, a freelance photographer for The Associated Press, described an “aggressive” crowd during the day because of the way fans behaved and rushed the stage barricades and restricted VIP and entry areas.
“It was definitely the most chaotic festival environment I’ve been in,” said Harris. “I felt uncomfortable all day.”
Houston Police Chief Troy Finner said his department noticed those in attendance at 9:30 p.m. and immediately notified concert organizers. The event was called off 40 minutes later after consultations with the fire service and officials with NRG Park.
Finner defended the amount of time it took to cancel the event.
“You can’t just close when you have 50,000 – more than 50,000 – individuals, okay?” said Finner. “We have to worry about riots – riots – when you have a group that young.”
At one point, Gerardo Abad-Garcia was pressed into the crowd so tightly that he couldn’t move his arms off his chest. During the gig that came before Scott’s performance, he began to worry about his safety.
“I just couldn’t breathe. I was getting compressed,” he said. A guard helped him and others climb over a fence and get out.
He described the audience during Scott’s set as a wave that went “forward and backward”. He said some people tried to help those who passed out on the floor, while other concertgoers seemed to ignore them and continue to watch the show.
Some spectators said barricades erected near the stage and to separate different sections of ticket holders prevented fans from escaping.
Billy Nasser described an area created by a stage barricade as a closet into which people were thrown and the door closed. Joshua Robinson said the barricades created an area that was “just way too small and compact” for the number of people there.
Some of the research will include how the area around the stage is designed, the fire chief said.
Authorities did not disclose the causes of death and the dead were not immediately identified.
The police chief said authorities were investigating reports of suspicious activity in the crowd, including a security guard who told police he felt a prick on his neck during the chaos and lost consciousness while being examined by first responders. He was revived by the opioid antidote Narcan.
Scott, one of music’s biggest young stars, founded the Astroworld Festival in 2018. The 29-year-old Houston native has been nominated for eight Grammy Awards. He has a 3-year-old daughter with Kylie Jenner, who announced in September that she is pregnant with their second child.
Drake joined Scott onstage during the concert, which was live streamed by Apple Music.
Associated Press writers Ryan Pearson in Los Angeles, Stan Choe in New York, David Sharp in Portland, Maine, and Desiree Seals in Atlanta contributed to this report.