Mansoor Dahri, UK
Large gatherings of people are supposed to be joyous occasions. But they can also be fraught with terrible danger. And sometimes tragedy strikes.
Last month witnessed two such tragedies; one at the beginning and one at the end. On 1st October 2022, Indonesia suffered from the Kanjuruhan stadium disaster in Malang, East Java. It led to the deaths of 133 people and injured 152 others.
More recently, just a few weeks ago, on 29th October 2022, South Korea suffered from the Seoul Halloween crowd crush, which led to the deaths of at least 156 people and injured 152 others in the neighbourhood of Itaewon.
Why did these incidents occur? How can we prevent them in the future?
Crowd Crush vs Stampede
Let’s start by making the important distinction between a ‘crowd crush’ and a ‘stampede’:
A ‘stampede’ is when a group of people are fleeing in fear en masse from a source of danger (e.g. a fire) and some of them have the misfortune to trip over and are subsequently trampled underfoot by the people running behind them.
Whereas ‘crowd crush’ or ‘crowd collapse’ is what happens when a group of people becomes dangerously overcrowded, so much so that the crowd falls or collapses in on itself i.e. when people in the centre become so dangerously squeezed and pressurised by everyone around them that they are crushed and die from suffocation. This can be the result of people moving quickly into a small space due to panic (a bit like a stampede but not quite). However, crowd crushes can happen even if people don’t run or rush. They can happen even if a crowd is fairly still.
I think it’s vital to make the distinction between stampedes and crowd crushes for two reasons:
Firstly, designating an incident as a ‘stampede’ makes it seem like the victims are to blame; the word ‘stampede‘ conjures an image of people running around mindlessly and causing their own deaths. It sounds like people were gruesomely running over each other without regard for one another’s humanity. It makes it seem like the fault of the victims when they had nothing to do with it.
Secondly, saying ‘stampede’ when it’s actually a crowd crush is inaccurate and prevents people from understanding what actually happened. This is dangerous because people need to understand these things properly in order to stop them from happening again.
The truth is that true stampedes are quite rare and the people who are trampled by others often survive; the injuries are seldom fatal. Crowd crushes are much more common and much more deadly.
Why Crowd Crushes Happen
Crowd crushes are typically the result of poor organisation by authorities responsible for planning large-scale events. When large crowds are managed badly and too many people are allowed to congregate in too small an area, you’ll have an increased risk of a crowd crush taking place. The key number here is 6-7 people per square metre; at this density, people find it hard to move freely and become stuck. Crowds may start to behave like a ‘liquid’ flowing together without individuals being able to control the movement. Eventually, people fall in on each other and everyone crushes everyone around them. Sometimes a tight crowd topples over, with each layer of people crushing the next layer.
This is a complex phenomenon and is not the fault of any of the individuals involved. Beyond a certain critical level, such a tragedy becomes almost inevitable. That’s why it’s important to prevent crowd crushes while it’s still possible to do so. It is estimated that approximately 66,000 people have died in crowd crushes between 1992 and 2002, but many experts consider this to be a serious underestimation.
1989 Hillsborough disaster (97 dead, 776 injured), 1990 Mecca tunnel tragedy (1426 dead), 1999 Sabarimala stampede (53 dead), 2006 PhilSports Stadium stampede (73 dead, 400 injured), 2008 Jodhpur stampede (224 dead, 425 injured), 2010 Love Parade disaster (21 dead, 652 injured), 2011 Sabarimala stampede (106 dead), 2014 Shanghai stampede (36 dead, 47 injured), 2015 Mina Stampede (2411 dead, 934 injured), 2017 Mumbai stampede (22 dead, hundreds injured), 2020 Qasem Soleimani funeral Stampede (56 dead 200 injured), 2020 Los Olivos stampede (13 dead, 6 injured), 2021 Meron crush (45 dead and 150 injured), 2021 Astroworld Festival crowd crush (8 dead, 300 injured), 2022 Kanjuruhan Stadium disaster (133 dead and 583 injured), 2022 Seoul Halloween crowd crush (at least 156 dead and 152 injured).
Many of these incidents are officially known as ‘stampedes’, but make no mistake, they were all examples of crowd crushes that could have been prevented with simple management strategies and proper foresight and planning. They are never the fault of the victims.
What follows is some general advice on what to do to prevent these dangerous situations from occurring. This advice is by no means definitive and I am in no way an expert on crowd crushes. However, I hope you’ll see that much of it is just simple common sense stuff. A lot of it is about trusting your instinct and quickly removing yourself from a situation where you feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Links have been provided so that you can find out more from other websites.
How To Stop Crowd Crushes – What Individuals Can Do
Even in the face of complex dynamic phenomena, there are still things that individuals can do:
- If you notice that there are more than 4 people per square metre, you should think about leaving (or if you start to feel uncomfortably crowded, try to leave calmly as soon as possible).
- If you feel pressure and the sensation of being touched all around you on all four sides, this is a warning sign and you should try to leave.
- If you feel shock waves through a densely packed crowd from all the back-and-forth between people, then this is a serious warning sign and you should try to leave immediately.
How to Escape Safely
It can be dangerous trying to leave a densely packed crowd. Here’s how you should go about it:
- Be aware of your surroundings: look ahead and pay attention to any noise.
- Move out of the crowd sideways. Sideways to what? Move sideways to the swaying or surging, or direction of the crowd.
- Go with the general direction or swaying of the crowd BUT make sure to slowly leave sideways.
- Stay standing (if you fall over, get up as quickly as possible; if you drop any valuables, leave them and do not waste time searching on the ground).
- Keep arms at chest level (like a boxer, so that your ribcage and lungs are protected).
- Don’t waste your breath (oxygen is important, most crowd crush deaths are caused by asphyxiation; save your breath for moving, not screaming or shouting).
- Move with the crowd, go sideways, move with the crowd, go sideways, move with the crowd, go sideways. Repeat until you have exited safely.
Avoid the centre and make your way to the edge of the crowd. Stay calm.
How To Stop Crowd Crushes – What Organisations Can Do
However, the responsibility for preventing crowd crushes ultimately lies with the organisations and authorities that are responsible for managing events. After all, people attending large events should be able to rely on organisers to do their jobs properly. Here are simple strategies for making things safer both before and during large events:
- Organisation and traffic control (have systems in place to manage the flow of people in an orderly fashion and ensure that there aren’t too many people in one place at the same time).
- Barriers (but only where appropriate; in the wrong places, barriers can make things worse e.g. Hillsborough disaster).
- Communicating with the crowd (have systems in place to speak to the crowd and direct their movements e.g. through a system of loudspeakers and with people or signs in visible raised places like platforms to give directions).
- Be wary of restricting people too much (inexperienced police and security officers actually exacerbated the Hillsborough disaster by stopping people from moving, contributing to the crush).
The last thing I want to do is needlessly alarm people. Though these disasters do still happen, there is now much greater awareness of them and organisations work harder to prevent them from happening. Events tend to be safer than they were before, especially due to attendance restrictions in the new era of pandemics.
However, it’s still a good idea to be aware of crowd crushes, both as individuals and as organisations if we are to prevent the occurrence of further tragedies. But in order to do this, it’s essential to stop the spread of misinformation about crowd crushes.
One of the easiest ways to stop misinformation is to remind people of the distinction between crowd crushes and stampedes; this also stops victim-blaming because people realise the true nature of these incidents and how they’re outside the control of any one person. This, in turn, will hopefully lead to more intelligent public dialogue and discourse surrounding the issue. That’s how we make progress.
About the Author: Mansoor Dahri is an online editor for The Review of Religions. He graduated from UCL in BA Ancient Languages.