In the summer of 2001, I attended an Aerosmith concert at the Tweeter Center in Tinley Park. We arrived early for lawn seats, knowing the band would do a short three-song set on a B-stage there, and we wanted to be front and center to the nearly sold-out show: the band was riding high off its hit single “Jaded”.
Halfway through the concert, the band and bodyguards sauntered up the aisle of the pavilion to the B-stage, which was no larger than a tractor trailer. My friends and I were right up front, hands resting on the barricades surrounding the stage as they kicked into the short set. To this day, I have no idea what songs they played. I was too terrified.
The 15,000 people lounging across the Tweeter Center’s massive lawn seating concentrated in minutes, all centering on where we stood. The tide of bodies and beer pressed us hard against the metal barricades.
I realized that if one of us fell, no amount of kicking or screaming would save our lives. That crowd, as mindless as a tsunami, would swallow us, crush us, and wouldn’t recede until the set was over and the band had gone. For ten minutes we gripped those barricades with white knuckles.
It was a frightening moment, and one that helped me better understand the Who Concert Disaster at the Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati on December 3rd, 1979.
Despite the loss of Keith Moon in 1978, the Who remained one of the world’s most popular rock bands in 1979, adding famed drummer Kenney Jones to fill Moon’s throne. With the new single “Who Are You” blasting from radios worldwide, their tour had been a massive success and gone as smooth as an Ex-Lax milkshake.
Without Moon’s mercurial temper and drinking problem, few problems arose…and Jones was a much better technical drummer. It had given new life to a band that feared the show might be over only a year earlier. The Who World Tour 1979 looked to be their best.
Until they got to Cincinnati.
Everyone blamed the disaster on someone else. Most news media reports—even the venerable Walter Kronkite—blamed it on a stampeding crowd of unruly rock fans. The band was tarnished for years afterwards; they continued the concert despite the 11 bodies lying outside the doors of the Riverfront Coliseum, and even played an encore. The band said they knew nothing of the incident until after the show was over. Their management received blame for scheduling a late soundcheck, which had frightened many concertgoers into believing the show was beginning without them.
Conservative media blamed the kids. Liberal media blamed the establishment.
In the end, and with the benefit of cooling tempers and time, the blame most likely belongs to the concert organizers and the Riverfront Coliseum management.
The majority (15,000 out of about 18,000) of the available tickets were sold as general admission, first-come, first-served, which meant the first people in would nab the closest spots.
On the chilly December day, dedicated fans began appearing at 1:30 in the afternoon for a concert that wasn’t supposed to begin until 8:00 in the evening. By 5, thousands were waiting outside the Coliseum’s bank of glass doors. An area radio station has mistakenly said concertgoers would be admitted as early as 3PM, an error that likely made the crowd larger and more irritable.
The crowd grew and grew and by the time the doors were opened, almost 7,000 cold, anxious rock fans were shivering outside the glass doors, waiting to enter.
Riverfront Coliseum has a total of 106 doors. 16 of those stood at the front of the Coliseum to admit ticket holders.
Security opened two doors: two doors, each eighteen inches wide, to usher in more than 7,000 anxious fans.
Disaster was unavoidable.
According to security staff, the crowd rushed through in a mad stampede, but given the size of the crowd and the forced bottleneck of the open doors, a stampede would have been almost impossible.
In a later interview, concertgoer and witness Mark Helmkamp dismissed the idea of a stampede in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine’s Chet Flippo.
“…It was an incredible bottleneck; it was a slow squeeze, not a stampede. I was stuck in it for forty-five minutes. I went down twice and wasn’t sure that I would make it. I saw guys with blue lips – they couldn’t get oxygen. I saw, I think, four ticket takers after I walked over all the shoes to get in. I couldn’t keep my feet on the ground the whole time. I kept my arms in front of my chest to keep from getting crushed. People were climbing up on other people’s shoulders. Some people went berserk and started swinging their elbows. That was the only blood. There was no group panic.”
This “slow squeeze” began at roughly 6:30 and didn’t stop until past 8, well into the Who’s first set. The flooring between the turnstiles and the entrance to the concert hall was covered with wallets, watches, crumpled tour programs and souvenirs…and thousands of bloody footprints.
Security didn’t see the victims until the bulk of those outside the Coliseum had filtered in, and then 11 trampled bodies were revealed on the ground. They notified police and police notified Cincinnati’s mayor. Horrified, the mayor decided to keep the band in the dark and continue the concert, fearing a cancellation might mean a riot and even more victims. A hard decision, but likely the right one.
Emergency services quickly removed the victims from the sidewalk surrounding the Coliseum as the concert went on.
After the shock came the blame game, then the lawsuits. Security personal insisted they had opened at least four doors, although they had sixteen doors the crowd could have entered through for admittance. The concert promoter said nine doors were open. But witness testimony and photographic evidence suggested only two doors had been opened during most of the disaster. The lawsuits raged on for nearly four years.
Ultimately, the blame would not land on the shoulders of a bunch of kids attending a rock concert, but on the concert promoter, on the band, and on the owner of the Riverfront Coliseum—the city of Cincinnati. The families of the 11 victims were awarded $150,000 in 1983, with the two dozen injured concertgoers splitting a $750,000 class action settlement.
Most importantly, concert venues around the United States began taking crowd management, and the dangers of improper planning, staffing, and training, much more seriously. For those lost in the Who Concert Disaster, the greatest tragedy is that this awareness came too late.