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Astroworld tragedy: How have Austin music festivals handled crowd safety?

Nine people were killed and hundreds were injured amid a crushing crowd surge during Travis Scott’s headline set Nov. 5 at Houston’s Astroworld Festival. No similar incident has occurred at an Austin concert, but, over the years, the city has been forced to take a hard look at how crowd dynamics can turn dangerous and even deadly.

‘People got out of hand’: City and SXSW work to rein in spring break

In March 2011, roughly 200,000 people showed up in Austin during South by Southwest, drawn as much by side parties and then-plentiful free booze as the conference and festival itself. That year, Kanye West played a Vevo-sponsored concert at the Seaholm Power Plant and the Fader Fort included surprise appearances by superstars including Diddy.

Crowds became unruly at some official festival events, and festival organizers lost control. Fences were torn down at a free SXSW showcase by the Strokes at Auditorium Shores and at a performance by Death From Above 1979 at the Beauty Bar on East Seventh Street.

There were no serious injuries in either incident, but city officials and SXSW organizers treated the events as a wake-up call. 

More:Travis Scott offers 'full refunds' to Astroworld attendees, lawsuits filed in tragedy's aftermath

Flowers are placed against a utility pole near the scene where a vehicle struck pedestrians, killing four, during South by Southwest in 2014.

"People got out of hand — it's not like 100 people got hurt, but we did a good job of responding," Austin’s then-Police Chief Art Acevedo told the American-Statesman in 2011. "We want to be proactive, not reactive."

In the months after the 2011 incidents, SXSW hired an international crowd-control expert, G. Keith Still, to conduct workshops with its festival employees, Austin police officers and other first responders on how to prevent and manage dangerous situations such as the one that occurred at the Strokes show. 

"It opened our eyes to how big it is, and how (SXSW), the promoters and the city collectively need to up our game," Brad Spies from the festival told the American-Statesman before the 2012 event.

SXSW organizers started working alongside representatives from the Austin Police Department and Austin-Travis County EMS in a joint command center during the festival. Festival and city officials also began seriously evaluating all spring break events from a safety standpoint.

In 2014, the city denied a permit application for a parking lot event that would feature Lady Gaga performing inside a Doritos vending machine the size of a building.

Tyler, the Creator fans rush through the front entrance of Scoot Inn during the rapper's performance at South by Southwest on March 13, 2014.

That same year, Tyler, the Creator became the first performer in at least a decade to be arrested and charged in Travis County with inciting a riot. On March 13, 2014, he was playing to a capacity crowd at the Scoot Inn in East Austin. While on stage, he began yelling at people outside the venue to push their way past security, an arrest affidavit said.

Police were already at the Scoot Inn that day, after receiving a report of overcrowding.

"All y'all outside the (gates), y'all push through," one officer said he heard Tyler shout. As people rushed inside, a bartender trying to protect a woman from being trampled was punched in the face by an unidentified man, the affidavit said.

The riot charge is a Class A misdemeanor that prosecutors dropped in plea deal. The rapper, born Tyler Gregory Okonma, instead pleaded guilty to a lesser offense of disorderly conduct and paid a $100 fine.

The melee at the Scoot Inn happened during an afternoon party on what would become the darkest day in Austin music history. Later that night, Rashad Owens drove through a barricade on Red River Street, killing four people and injuring dozens. The next year, the city added concrete barricades to reinforce street closures.

Previous coverage of SXSW crash:A car racing through the crowd during SXSW connects people in memories and nightmares

Julian Casablancas of the Strokes performs at Auditorium Shores during South by Southwest on March 17, 2011. That year, crowds became unruly at the band's free showcase, leading to fences being torn down by people rushing inside the concert.

A confluence of events that culminated in tragedy

Austin City Limits Music Festival, the city's signature large outdoor music festival, has certainly seen large crowds.

In the wake of the Astroworld tragedy, fans have taken to social media to describe tightly packed front sections for recent ACL Fest headliners like Eminem and Childish Gambino. After hip-hop star Lizzo drew a record-breaking crowd to her first-weekend ACL Fest set in 2019, organizers simulcast her performance on an adjacent stage during the second weekend of the fest. No violence erupted at these events. 

ACL Fest organizer C3 Presents did not respond to a request for comment about safety at the festival. Live Nation, the massive concert industry conglomerate that organized Astroworld, has a controlling stake in C3 Presents. 

Those who work in the live music industry and the specialized fields of crowd management recognize an array of issues at Astroworld that led to “everything going wrong, like dominoes,” said Paul Wertheimer, founder of Crowd Management Strategies.

“Look, Live Nation, Travis Scott, the security firm, the venue operators – nobody wanted anybody to die at this show. But they perpetuated this environment during other Astroworld shows. … Pop culture in general grooms fans to accept these dangerous crowd environments. It’s like getting the thrill of the roller coaster, knowing you’re not going to go off the tracks," Wertheimer said, citing hard rock bands such as Limp Bizkit and Rage Against the Machine as other examples of acts known for stirring up a crowd. 

While the experts contacted for this story prefaced their comments with the caveat that they weren’t in the Astroworld crowd and couldn’t address specific safety failures, their expertise allows for a broad view of traditional protocols.

Dan Schmitt, president and founder of Virginia-based RMC Events, explained that ideally, “blowout exit points” on the left and right of the crowd should be available as a matter of physics.

Authorities have not indicated if such exit points were available at NRG Park, the site of the Astroworld Festival since its 2018 inception.

“When you start getting pushed up, the natural tendency is to push back and you start creating a wave effect and it intensifies,” Schmitt said. “In the (Astroworld) crowd, this was not an environment (some fans) were used to and pushing back is the worst thing to do. The best thing is to look east-west instead of north-south.”

People caught in crowd surges are usually suffocated, not trampled. They are squeezed against one another by surrounding people, or pushed against barriers, and are unable to breathe. Deaths are typically caused by compression asphyxia, in which external pressure on the body prevents breathing.

Crowd surges usually start with something that gets a crowd moving as a unit in the same direction, either away from something or toward something. In the Astroworld event, officials said, people started moving toward the stage when Travis Scott appeared.

Those who died at the Astroworld Festival ranged in age from 14 to 27, representative of the young crowd that Scott attracts. Some experts say some of the responsibility rests on fans.

“Is it people just being young and stupid and running past the security guards? Or are they people who are going to cause problems later? People don’t want to play by the rules,” said Danny Zelisko, a veteran concert promoter based in Arizona. “Buy a ticket and behave responsibly, as opposed to, ‘Let’s rush the gates.’ There’s a whole element of not-good things that could happen, and then you can’t predict what is going to happen.”

But others point to the traditional risk assessment conducted during the planning stages of any major event, where red flags about Scott and his audience should have been scrutinized.

Risk assessment "identifies hazards and risks to property and invited guests. What could go wrong? How do we mitigate it? Do we have the resources, the skills, the expertise? Is this artist problematic? Now, today, they’re parading around, ‘Look what we found about Travis Scott!’ That should be addressed in the risk assessment. What kind of crowd does this artist attract and then determine how you might mitigate what might happen,” Wertheimer said.

The blame for so-called “crowd crush” disasters almost always gets laid on the assemblage, with police and media describing a mob of panic-stricken people trampling one another.

A deadly crowd surge occurred as Travis Scott performed Nov. 5 at the Astroworld Festival in Houston.

“Absolute nonsense,” Edwin Galea, a U.K.-based fire safety and evacuation expert, told the Guardian newspaper. “It gives the impression that it was a mindless crowd only caring about themselves, and they were prepared to crush people.”

Galea and others contend individuals are in fact suffocated and crushed only by other victims who cannot possibly resist the fluid surge of a crowd, while those pressing forward from the outside have no idea that lives are in danger.

The consensus by some event authorities at the early stages of the investigation points to a confluence of events that culminated in tragedy.

“When you mix the cocktail — an artist who has a history of (inciting rowdiness) and fans who are used to it and the possibility that there might have been a layout or design flaw (on site) and then inject other pieces, like drugs or staffing — suddenly you’ve put pieces of this bad equation in a cocktail,” said Schmitt. “And sometimes it tastes bad.”

More than 30 civil lawsuits have been filed against Live Nation in Harris County state District Court in Houston, one calling the festival a “predictable and preventable tragedy.” One lawyer said, “Defendants failed to properly plan and conduct the concert in a safe manner."

Concert production has little regulation and no international standards

In October 2012, Austin City Council approved the creation of the Austin Center for Events, a collaborative agency that includes personnel from the Police Department, EMS, and the city’s music, parks and code compliance departments.  

The Events Center handles permits for all music festivals and events that happen in venues that do not have a year-round live music permit, including ACL Fest. Depending on the size of the event, the center also may coordinate with the Travis County sheriff’s office and state officials.

"For large events, these regulatory bodies work months in advance with organizers to provide the safest possible environment for events to occur in Austin," said Sara Henry, a spokesperson for the Austin Center for Events, in a statement.

Astroworld deaths:Victims were as young as 14 in 'mass casualty incident' at Travis Scott festival

The center reviews each event site and the organizer's safety plans ahead of the event to identify and address potential areas of concern. Representatives from the center conduct on-site inspections, and some center personnel remain on-site "for the duration of large events to monitor crowd activity and provide timely responses to medical events and public safety issues," Henry said.  

"Even with this amount of preparation and on-site presence of public safety officials, there are a number of factors which can leave event attendees vulnerable to injury," Henry said. "It is important that attendees, promoters, performers and secondary security work together to ensure a safe experience for everyone. ACE advises people attending events to be aware of their surroundings, maintain distance from others even in a crowd, make sure to know your exit routes at all times, and yield to emergency staff and their vehicles." 

Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday formed the Texas Task Force on Concert Safety. The task force will gather safety experts, law enforcement, firefighters, state agencies, music industry leaders and others for several roundtable discussions to analyze concert safety and develop ways to enhance security at live music events in Texas.

The crowd science expert who advised Austin officials and local event promoters after SXSW 2011, Still, said last week that the entertainment industry continues to suffer crowd crush fatalities because there is little regulation and no international standard.

When an airliner has an incident, even a close call, an investigation is launched and regulations are adopted globally to prevent future accidents.

"That doesn't happen in the entertainment industry. It's an unregulated field," Still said. "Anybody can start an event and sell tickets. ... Tragedies like this shouldn't happen."