As lawsuits continue to pour in from the deadly crowd crush at the Astroworld concert, investigators, city and county officials, injured fans and family members of the dead, are all seeking answers as to how a fun-filled night turned into a tragedy.
Here’s where we are.
From the beginning, it seemed like the crowd was out of control. Video shows many fans without tickets bum-rushing security, jumping over gates and frantically making their way into the NRG. More than 50,000 fans ultimately packed the outdoor open venue.
Defender Multi-Media Reporter Payton Wilson was covering the event when things went south.
“During Don Toliver’s performance, people started bum-rushing the stage. I was pushed, shoved, and thrown around like a rag doll. I had a tape recorder in my hand, and it was smacked out and crushed by the insane group of fans,” she said.
The crush of the crowd sent fans into a panic. Wilson said it was simply too many people in a confined space.
“This tragedy was bound to happen. There was pent-up energy from people being locked in their homes for the past year and a half, too many people crushed together, an abundance of free-flowing drugs…..so it was a recipe for disaster,” Wilson said.
Crowd surge deaths happen because people are packed into a space so tightly that they are being squeezed and can’t get oxygen. It’s not usually because they’re being trampled.
Who’s to blame?
Immediately after the tragedy, the blame game began. Who was at fault? The city? County? Promoters? Law enforcement? Or Travis Scott himself?
The rapper himself is facing a barrage of criticism for continuing the show despite pleas of help from the crowd. Although he paused a few times, many are saying this response is not enough.
However, crowd safety experts say that a “whole bunch of failures” led to the devastating events and that the blame cannot solely be placed on Scott. Paul Wertheimer, who founded the Crowd Management Strategies consulting firm and is an advocate for safer concert environments, agrees that Scott alone is not to blame for the tragic incident at AstroWorld and is worried that the rapper is being “scapegoated.”
“I would say, Mr. Scott has a role in this tragedy, but he’s not the only one,” Wertheimer said.
The crowd safety expert acknowledged that there has been a lot of focus on Scott’s history of rowdy shows and his previous arrests for inciting the crowd, but said that this is all the more reason for event planners to consider the risks and plan for such behavior accordingly.
“All of this should have been addressed in the risk assessment before they even decided to do the event,” Wertheimer said. “They should have looked at the fact that they had a problematic artist and a crowd that can get chaotic. In addition, the young people trying to get out of a pandemic and live their lives right, so there is extra energy—they should’ve asked can we mitigate these issues, can we prevent them?” he asked.
Wertheimer said he saw what he called the equivalent is of the crowd management plan that was used at AstroWorld and described it as “mostly boilerplate.”
“It does not even address the crowds in front of the stage, does not address festival seating and the difficulties of crowd density crowd crush, crowd surge, crowd collapse, panic and does not even address the audience,” he said. “So you can’t blame all of that on Travis Scott.”
Police Chief Troy Finner met with Scott before the show to express his concerns about safety. Finner has not publicly specified those concerns.
A 22-page plan promoters submitted to local officials ahead of the festival said it estimated 70,000 attendees — more than the actual number of concertgoers — and planned for a daily staff of more than 80 emergency medics, doctors, registered nurses and supervisors.
Authorities have said part of their investigation will include reviewing whether the concert promoter and others behind the festival adhered to those plans.
Houston police and fire departments have said they reviewed and approved safety plans. But the union head of the Houston Fire Department said firefighters did not have a presence inside the festival and were not given radios to communicate directly with organizers.
“We don’t use cellphones for emergencies. We use radios. We need direct contact because as situations unfold, seconds matter,” said Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association.
Festival organizers had contracted with New York-based ParaDocs to handle all medical services at the festival. ParaDocs said in a statement they are cooperating with investigators.
Three concertgoers remain in critical condition, according to Mayor Sylvester Turner. One of those is Ezra Blount, the 9-year-old grandson of Bernon Blount, who attended the festival with his father but became separated during the crowd surge. Blount said the child is in a medically induced coma after sustaining injuries to his heart, lungs and brain.
“I’m angry because it’s disrupted our family, and this could have been avoided if people in positions of power had done the right thing,” Blount said.
Turner read the names of the eight people who died before pausing the meeting for a moment of silence.
Scott, who founded the Astroworld festival, said he would cover funeral costs for the victims. The dead ranged in age from 14 to 27 and came from Texas, Illinois and Washington state, according to Harris County authorities. They included high schoolers, an aspiring Border Patrol agent and a computer science student.
Where we are
The festival grounds and stage where Scott performed have yet to be disassembled as authorities and attorneys representing the injured and their families continued combing the area. The festival was held on a parking lot that is part of NRG Park, a complex consisting of stadiums, an arena and a convention center.
The Houston Police Department is conducting a criminal investigation, while county officials are determining a path for “an independent, objective assessment” of what caused the concert disaster, according to Harris County Judge Hidalgo.
“I do think it’s important that we show empathy, that we’re sensitive to the issue, but we also look at what changes ought to be made going forward and look at best practices around the country,” said Commissioner Rodney Ellis.
Commissioner Adrian Garcia stressed his own experience overseeing large-crowd events in the past, during his time as a Houston police officer and Harris County sheriff, implying responsibility for the disaster on the part of private security for the event.
“At some point, whoever is in charge of safety and security has to make it very clear to the promoter that that’s what they’re in charge of,” Garcia said. “They’re not there to sell tickets. They’re not there to have a record crowd. They’re not there to make it easy for profit to take place. They’re there to make sure that the event happens safely.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has announced the formation of a task force to develop concert safety recommendations, which he said would “ensure that the tragedy that occurred at the Astroworld Festival never happens again.”
DN: Read about the legal issues that lie ahead from the festival.
Emergency plans for the Astroworld festival did not include protocols for dangerous crowd surges. More than 20 lawsuits have been filed, accusing organizers of failing to implement simple crowd-control measures or staff properly. Those being sued include Scott, Live Nation, and rapper Drake, who performed with Scott.
Legal experts say Scott’s past incitement of concertgoers offers a history that could make it easier to pursue negligence claims against companies that planned and managed the show. And although the investigations have just begun, experts expect dozens more lawsuits seeking damages that could climb into hundreds of millions of dollars.
“This tragedy was months, if not years, in the making,” wrote Houston lawyer Steve Kherkher in a lawsuit demanding more than $1 million for a man trampled in the melee, which he said was “predictable and preventable” given the rapper’s history.
Attorneys have seized on an early clue of trouble that came hours before the concert began when throngs of fans rushed past security and metal detectors through a fence.
“Whatever security they had was wholly insufficient,” said former federal prosecutor Philip Hilder, a Houston lawyer not involved in any Astroworld case. “The crowd went right through.”
Hilder also criticized the event’s 56-page planning document, which was submitted to the city for approval. He said the plans were “boilerplate,” with too few details about the safety of the parking lot where the performance was held, which had no seating or aisles and no pens to contain the crowds.
The planning document, obtained by The Associated Press and shared with Hilder, mentions the possibility of tornadoes, bomb threats, active shooters, civil disobedience and riots but makes no mention of a possible crowd surge.
Scott is famous for encouraging fans to ignore security and crowd surf and stage dive in the mosh pit below him. A commercial for this year’s Astroworld event, since removed from YouTube, shows fans breaking through barricades and storming the concert grounds at the 2019
Houston attorney C.J. Baker said a criminal filing against Scott is possible given his past behavior, but it would be a difficult case because it would have to establish intent, not just carelessness.
“You would need to show that he acted in a way that he sort of knew what was happening and acted that way anyway,” he said. “That is a much bigger, much steeper hill to climb” than the lawsuits.
Houston lawyer Joel Androphy said most law firms are likely to focus on civil suits that pile on defendants with resources to pay out big damages.
Aside from Scott, the biggest legal target is Live Nation, a publicly traded company whose stock has soared as fans rush to more concerts and festivals now that many pandemic restrictions have been lifted. The company has declined to comment on what went wrong, but issued a statement that it is helping police with a criminal investigation and “will address all legal matters at the appropriate time.”
Suing Houston and Harris County for negligence would be difficult, given that both enjoy broad protection under the doctrine of sovereign and government immunity, but there are exceptions, several lawyers said.
“They’re mostly protected, but their conduct is going to be looked at with a critical eye,” said Houston lawyer Randy Sorrels, past president of the Texas State Bar Association.