NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Caution: Concerts Can Be Hazardous to Your Health

Sugarland Show and the Fatal Who Concert Are Poignant Reminders of Dangers

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

The terrible tragedy at the Sugarland concert in Indiana just a few days ago was a fresh reminder of the potential dangers that face any concertgoer. It brought back memories to me of all the times that I went to concerts blissfully unaware that trouble might be lurking at any moment, and it reminded me of the need to be mindful about personal safety.

I do not want to die at a music concert. I especially do not want to die as a result of being trampled, being struck by lightning, being otherwise electrocuted, being suffocated by a crowd surge, being crushed by falling scaffolding or lights or speakers, being burned alive in a crowded club, being shot, being stabbed or of overdosing on drugs or alcohol, dying of hyperthermia or dying as a result of falling out of a stadium. Those are all very real — and documented — possibilities at any show you go to.

My own close calls at concerts have been relatively mild, especially considering how many shows I’ve been to. I have survived heatstroke at Fan Fair, being locked in my car in a pasture at 3 in the morning after a Willie Nelson Picnic and escaping a bull who was also locked in that pasture, almost being hit in the head by multiple Roman candles at a Paul McCartney show, narrowly avoiding being heavily dosed with acid at a Grateful Dead show, having to leave a Rolling Stones show once because my heart started beating in time to Bill Wyman’s own irregular bass beat, getting caught up in the middle of a fight between two very prominent and very drunk American jazz stars backstage at a festival in Havana, discovering that strobe lights can seriously induce migraine headaches and getting stopped with an ounce of marijuana by small-town cops in Louisiana after leaving a locally-unpopular three-day rock festival.

You do learn to take certain precautions. Most country shows are pretty much welcoming to all ages and any types of people, and security and safety precautions are usually well taken care of. I do not go to raves or to any show where I can strongly sense I would not be welcome. I avoid clubs if they look like firetraps. I don’t like crowded balconies with only one small narrow staircase leading down to a packed club. I scan every venue or club for fire exits and try to remember their locations. I would rather arrive late at a concert and leave late if that’s the best way to avoid getting caught up in a crush of thousands of people in crowded hallways or on packed stairways or escalators. I avoid obvious drunks and crazies and druggies. No mosh pits for me.

The worst concert disaster I ever covered was the Who’s 1979 show at Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati. I wrote about that for Rolling Stone and interviewed many of the survivors, as well as friends and relatives of those who were killed. Their stories were heartbreaking. I arrived the morning after the show with another Rolling Stone writer, and we were soon immersed in a very humbling human tragedy.

Those who died in the crush were mostly just children. They were passionate Who fans and were excited to be going to the show. They were no different from the Sugarland fans who were excited about going to see their favorite performers and had no idea they were about to be killed by the falling physical trappings of the show they were about to experience.

As the Who fans happily skipped and ran up the coliseum’s doors, some of them had no idea they were soon going to die an agonizing and painful and horrible death as they slowly had the life crushed out of them by other concertgoers who were caught up in a slow stampede as they pushed up against the closed and locked doors.

They had no idea they were about to die as a result of incompetence by the city, incompetence and understaffing by the venue’s management, negligence by the police and incompetence by the Who’s organization itself. To explain the problem in its simplest terms, it was a result of an insistence on making the show “festival seating” — that is, no seats at all. So people wanted to get there early to push up as close as possible to the stage for prime standing room only. No seats equals first come, first serve.

It was 26 degrees outside the coliseum on that Dec. 3 night. Everyone obviously would rather be inside, waiting for the show to start, rather than being out in the cold, not knowing when they would be let in.

Fifteen minutes before the show’s announced starting time at 8 p.m., the Who began playing a late sound check. The crowd, hearing the music, thought the show had started and began trying to surge ahead and get in. But the doors were still closed and locked.

Secondly, the tragedy was a result of no crowd control outside — or inside — the coliseum and far too few doors to allow entrance. In essence, it was a matter of far too many people trying to squeeze through a tiny funnel — once a few doors were finally opened. Those at the rear couldn’t see what was happening in front and continued to push against the crowd in front of them. Those up ahead were being crushed against the still-locked glass doors or falling to the concrete and being trampled underfoot.

That only 11 of the thousands died (and scores were injured) is, I guess, miraculous. And, of course, the families of the children who died really couldn’t expect meaningful damages with their lawsuits. That’s because of what was unofficially referred to as the “worthless kid” or “economically-useless child” legal defense. The contention is that a child has yet to demonstrate any real earning power or potential. So, the kid is actually worth little or nothing, in the eyes of the legal system.

The families filed wrongful death lawsuits, which wended arduously through courts for years. They eventually reached modest financial settlements.