What went wrong at Astroworld? Expert: It took 'everything going wrong, like dominoes'
Corrections & Clarifications: An earlier version of this story listed an incorrect name for Edwin Galea.
As details emerge about the deadly events at Travis Scott’s Astroworld Festival, the question looms: How does a tragedy like this happen at a concert?
This was the third edition of Scott’s curated music event in his Houston hometown, so the blueprint was already created. The outdoor, two-day event sold 100,000 tickets for a lineup that included Lil Baby, SZA, Tame Impala and Roddy Ricch (Saturday's concert was canceled).
Festivals of any magnitude involve at least a year of planning, with numerous moving pieces including permitting and staffing for police, fire and medics required. Houston Police Chief Troy Finner has also revealed that he expressed "public safety concerns" directly to Scott during a "brief and respectable" meeting ahead of Astroworld on Friday and asked the rap superstar to "work with HPD for all events over the weekend."
Live Nation, which produced the event, is the biggest live music promoter in the world, with festivals including the hip-hop-oriented Rolling Loud - which recently took place in Miami - and the annual rock-a-thon Lollapalooza among its lengthy history.
Some have pointed to the general admission setup, where there is no seating and fervent fans typically rush to stand closest to the stage, as a culprit for the disaster that claimed eight lives and sent more than two dozen to the hospital.
But those who work in the live music industry and the specialized fields of crowd management recognize an array of issues that led to “everything going wrong, like dominoes,” says 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 says, citing hard rock bands such as Limp Bizkit and Rage Against the Machine as other examples of acts known for stirring up a crowd.
Neither Live Nation nor Houston city officials have discussed safety measures, but at a press conference on Saturday, authorities said that 528 Houston Police Department officers were tapped for security with an additional 755 private security members from Live Nation. It has not been revealed if those were the actual numbers of officers and security on site Friday night.
A criminal investigation by the Houston Police Department is underway. According to the Associated Press, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo is also calling for an independent review of the emergency response.
Live Nation issued an update on Monday that the company will "continue to support and assist local authorities in their ongoing investigation so that both the fans who attended and their families can get the answers they want and deserve, and we will address all legal matters at the appropriate time."
The load out of equipment at the site has also been paused "to give investigators the time they requested to walk and document the grounds."
While everyone 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.
Steven Adelman, an attorney focused on risk and safety at live events and vice president of the Event Safety Alliance, cautions against reflexive responses.
“General admission shows happen all the time and very rarely has anything bad happened,” he says. “The event security obviously did not succeed the way it doubtless would have been planned. But with Live Nation and (Contemporary Service Corporation) providing the security, it’s not amateur hour. It wouldn’t be because of ignorance or because they were unprepared.”
Dan Schmitt, president and founder of Virginia-based RMC Events, explains 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 Astroworld since its 2018 inception. As of Monday night, about 20 civil lawsuits had been filed against Live Nation in Harris County 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."
“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.”
Schmitt’s company provides event staffing for more than 10,000 events a year, including Pharrell Williams’ 2019 “Something in the Water” festival that drew about 100,000 people to the Virginia Beach oceanfront. At that event, Schmitt’s team set up zones, so fans could only enter respective areas.
“It’s breaking up the mass into smaller pieces,” he says.
Those who died at Astroworld 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,” says Wertheimer.
Scott has a reputation of high-energy performances and rowdy crowds. He has 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, the former resulting in a one-year probation and the latter he was ordered to pay court fees and restitution for two injured people.
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.
“Absolute nonsense,” Edwin Galea, 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.”
In fact, Galea and others contend individuals are 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.
Still, says Zelisko, responsibility “is a two-way street.”
“Everyone wants to point fingers at the promoter and all they did is stage a show for people to attend. But the audience had nothing to do with it? You can’t blame an entire audience, but the focus should be fairly spread out. In this case, they don’t have the problem if everyone kind of behaves.”
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.”
But the analysis that will encompass Astroworld might lead to a reexamination of safety precautions at concerts and festivals - which experts agree is necessary.
G. Keith Still, visiting professor at University of Suffolk and author of "Introduction to Crowd Science" and upcoming book "Applied Crowd Science," said the entertainment industry continues to suffer from 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."