The tragic preventable death of 44 Israeli citizens during their religious celebrations is just another link in the long ugly chain of crowd crush disasters. The Lag B’Omer event where this tragedy occurred is designed to reveal the deepest meaning of the Jewish Kabbalistic mysticism.
I have studied crowd management techniques for nearly fifty years and have discovered that there is a general pattern of neglect and non-compliance with existing regulations. I hope that from this and previous events, we may finally uncover the deepest answers to how to once and for all, prevent these disasters in the future.
In 1979 eleven young people between the ages of 17 and 27 died of asphyxiation following a concert by The Who in the Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio when there was a sudden surge of the crowd prior to the concert. Following an investigation, authorities found that the absence of assigned seating was a significant contributing factor to the incident and open seating was banned following this event.
The same month, the Mayor of Providence, Rhode Island cancelled a performance by The Who despite the fact that the event would have required assigned seating. Ironically, in 2003, also in Rhode Island, The Station Night Club disaster killed 100 young persons and injured 230. The Governor at that time appointed me to chair a state wide committee to identify how the live events industry in Rhode Island could improve their practices to promote greater public safety.
As I listened to the family members of the victims describe the loss of life that had impacted them, I realised very quickly, as did the rest of the members of the committee, that this incident and many similar ones, are highly preventable. In the case of The Station Night Club and other similar events involving music, alcohol and crowds there is a pattern of avoidance by government officials that must be addressed to mitigate and prevent future disasters.
First and foremost, it is well known that the majority of these crowd crush episodes take place during ingress and egress. Therefore, it is essential that there be adequate escape corridors for audience members should a crowd crush develop. The event should not be granted permission to occur unless these escape corridors are pre – arranged and that all doors leading from these corridors have crush bars and the doors are able to open out with the venue.
On 24 July 2010, a crowd crush at the ironically entitled Love Parade electronic dance music festival in Duisburg, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, caused the deaths of 21 people from suffocation as attendees tried to escape a crowded tunnel. At least 500 more were injured. The fatalities occurred when the ramp between tunnel underpasses and the festival area over crowded until there was a crush. As a result of this tragedy, all future Love Parades were permanently cancelled.
Second, sufficiently marked egress points must be identified. In the case of The Station Night Club the room quickly filled with flame and smoke from malfunctioning pyrotechnics. As a result, the audience began crawling along the floor in search of oxygen to breathe. There were no signs on the lower part of the egress doors and as a result of human nature, the crowd instinctively tried to exit through the same door they had entered. The majority of the dead bodies that were recovered were in the doorway where they had entered only a few hours earlier.
Third and finally, audience members must have clear written and verbal instructions of what to do in the case of an emergency including the location of multiple exits. One of the positive outcomes of the Rhode Island tragedy was the requirement that public assembly venues such as stadia, theatres and other mass audience sites, must provide signs and announcements over the tannoy directing audience members to visually identify the nearest exit to their seat and to walk to that exit in the case of an emergency evacuation.
One year after the hearings that I conducted in Rhode island, my wife and I sat in a darkened theatre and heard the announcement that was now required by law and I looked to my left and right and saw brightly illuminated exit door signs posted above and below and simultaneously the hair on the back of my neck began to rise in gratitude for some of the lessons now learned in the face of great tragedy.
Scotland has not been immune to this type of disaster and because so much of our tourism economy is driven by live events, these are lessons we must now learn as well. We must never forget that the 1971 Ibrox disaster in Glasgow occurred because of a crush among the crowd at an Old Firm football game and led to 66 deaths and more than 200 injuries. It was the worst British football disaster until the Hillsborough disaster in Sheffield, England, in 1989.
I sincerely hope that the State of Israel and my adopted home country of Scotland also learn similar lessons. In my Jewish tradition, we believe that to save one life is to indeed save the world. May the leaders of Israel and other countries work even harder in the future to improve ingress and egress procedures, to mark them more effectively, and provide audience with proper instructions in order to save their lives.