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Crowd surge at a Who concert killed 11 people in 1979: ‘It was so strong, it just tore us apart’

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 11/9/2021 Brittany Shammas
Cincinnati police and rescue workers attend to two bodies outside the Who concert at Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati on Dec. 3, 1979. © Ed Reinke/Cincinnati Enquirer/AP Cincinnati police and rescue workers attend to two bodies outside the Who concert at Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati on Dec. 3, 1979.

The couple stood near the arena entrance, his arms around her waist, two people in a sea of thousands waiting to enter a sold-out concert by one of the world’s biggest bands.

Music drifted from Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum, and some thought the Who’s Dec. 3, 1979, show was starting. Michael and Teva Ladd, who frequented rock concerts and had been eagerly anticipating this one, felt the crowd push forward in a sudden, terrifying force.

“It was so strong, it just tore us apart,” Michael Ladd recalled. “I remember the instant when we went down. My wife went one way, and I went the other.”

In its wake, the crush would leave 11 dead.

The fatal crowd surge Friday at rapper Travis Scott’s Astroworld Festival performance, which killed at least eight in Houston, has renewed attention to the tragedy nearly 42 years earlier at the Who’s show in Cincinnati. In an incident with haunting parallels, concertgoers whose lives were just beginning lost them instead, unable to breathe as people pressed closer and closer.

In Cincinnati, there were 11 dead, all in their teens or 20s. Then, as on Friday, the tragedy drew widespread shock: How had a night of exuberance turned to a life-or-death struggle?

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The Who concert had sold out almost instantly, with fans snatching all 18,348 tickets in the space of 90 minutes, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported. Most of the tickets were not for assigned seats, but general admission or “festival seating” — standing room in whatever space could be claimed on the main floor.

“The Who was then the most popular rock band in the world, and they hadn’t been in Cincinnati for years,” said Paul Wertheimer, who was a city spokesman and would later serve on a task force investigating the fatal crush. “So this was like the World Series of rock-and-roll.”

The Ladds could hardly wait.

Both 27, the couple had been together for about seven years and married for five. They loved going to concerts — they had previously seen leading acts including Elton John, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple.

When they snagged tickets to the Dec. 3 show, “we were happy about it, bragging about it: ‘We have our tickets to the Who finally making it to Cincinnati,’” Michael Ladd said. His parents agreed to watch the couple’s children, who were 2 and 4 years old, and he and Teva arrived at the coliseum hours before doors were set to open at 7 p.m.

They joined a festival atmosphere mounting at the plaza outside the arena. People had begun showing up as early as 3 p.m., according to a Cincinnati Enquirer report from the time, willing to brave hours in the December cold.

That was the promise of a general-admission ticket. With no reserved seating near the stage, “everyone imagines that they got a seat right in front of Pete Townshend,” Wertheimer said, referring to the windmilling guitarist.

It was just a matter of getting there first.

By 6:30 p.m., thousands had gathered outside the arena; estimates ranged from 7,000 to 12,000 fans. About a half-hour later, about the time the doors were supposed to open, the Who could be heard playing inside. It was just a soundcheck: The band had arrived late and was running behind schedule.

But no one outside knew that.

“Nobody communicated with them,” Wertheimer said. “And people got anxious. They thought the show was going on.”

It caused what an expert consulted by the task force later called a “crowd craze,” in which an “induced sense of urgency” sends a group into a bottleneck. With so many people packed together, research engineer John J. Fruin wrote to the task force in February 1980, “the crowd became an almost fluid mass.” Waves coursed through it, the small movement of one person sending ripples to the next.

Too few doors had been opened to handle the heave of people, and for those in front, there was nowhere to go. Concertgoers were shoved up against one another, some lifted off their feet and out of their shoes. Some started to fall. Crammed together, people struggled to breathe.

The last thing Michael Ladd remembered seeing was a glass door shattering. Then he lost track of his wife as the crowd surged forward and opened a gulf between them. The pressure knocked him to the ground, where, he said, “I was fighting for my life.”

“I was to a point where I almost passed out,” Ladd said. “I got in a fetal position, finally got to where I got my arms around my chest and up as hard as I could to get air into my lungs. I was on the brink of going under when it just started lifting. Lucky, I guess.”

When he finally managed to stand, the crowd was mostly gone. The plaza, as he remembers it, was clear of everyone except others trying to pick themselves up and the first responders rushing to them. He looked for Teva, his outgoing and fun-loving wife, who after all those years together still “had a mystery about her.”

Paramedics were carrying her out on a stretcher.

Ladd had been hoping she found a way out. But there he was watching authorities pronounce her dead and saying his goodbyes on what was supposed to be a fun night out together.

“I talked to the police and told them who she was, and I said, ‘I got to get home to my mom and dad and my kids,’” he said. “I said, ‘I got to get there.’ That’s all I know is I just wanted to get home. That’s when I just walked off that plaza level right to my car. And I don’t even remember the drive home. And I fell in my dad’s arms.”

Voice breaking, he added, “It still hurts to talk about it.”

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Inside the Riverfront Coliseum, the show was carrying on, the cheering audience oblivious to the horror unfolding at the entrance. At 8:10 p.m., the Who took the stage, opening with “Substitute,” according to a Washington Post account from the time.

The group’s manager, Bill Curbishley, didn’t tell the band what had happened until they left the stage: “We decided there was no reason to stop the concert and give the people any reason to make more trouble,” he said.

News began spreading outside the venue. Craig Kopp, news director of rock station WEBN, was at home when his boss called to tell him something had happened at the entrance. People were dead.

“I just didn’t understand what the hell could have caused that,” said Kopp, who hurried to the station. “Was there a shooting? Was there a fight?”

Shoes, scarves, coats, purses and other belongings lay strewn across the coliseum plaza, torn from people’s bodies by the force of the surging crowd. The metal turnstiles that allowed concertgoers into the venue were bent, the shattered glass of the door glinted on the ground.

Years later, Kopp still found it hard to grasp. But, he said, “What happens is that the crowd becomes not a group of individuals, it becomes a thing unto itself.”

A security guard checks the doors at Riverfront Coliseum. Shoes and clothes are strewn where people were killed and injured. © Brian Horton/AP A security guard checks the doors at Riverfront Coliseum. Shoes and clothes are strewn where people were killed and injured.

Some initially blamed rock-and-roll, drug use or even the victims themselves, who in the early hours were accused of stampeding the doors. The task force faulted poor crowd management as the true culprit. The group issued dozens of recommendations, including a ban on festival seating that lasted in Cincinnati for more than 20 years.

The tragedy had “a legacy of lessons learned of what can go wrong when people aren’t taken care of,” said Wertheimer, who after the task force went on to found Crowd Management Strategies, a Los Angeles-based concert safety consulting firm. He and others close to the Cincinnati incident were angered to learn of Friday’s tragedy in Houston.

“Rock-and-roll and rap and those genres, they are meant to make you move,” said Kopp. “They’re meant to energize you. None of that should kill you. And I think that the people who stage shows have got to accept their responsibility for the safety of those crowds of people who they know the music is meant to agitate. Come on.”

Michael Ladd, who has always considered himself “damn near number 12,” was gripped anew by sadness. He struggled for years after the concert, turning to alcohol in his grief. He lost his job, wrecked his motorcycle, bounced in and out of county jails.

“I’m a walking cat, but I got more than nine lives,” he said. “I think I should have been dead 10 times over. It just never happened. I’m pretty sure I got a guardian angel up there looking after me, saying, ‘Them kids need you, honey.’”

He’s long since given up drinking. Now 69, he’s remarried. He has grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and he’s found purpose in memorializing Teva and the 10 other victims.

When he heard what happened at the Astroworld Festival, he read everything he could about it. He thought of all the similarities. He noticed two of the victims were from Ohio, and he thought of the people grieving their deaths as well as the difficulty he had endured for the past four decades.

“I just hate to hear about it,” he said. “It’s just —”

He stopped to collect himself.

“It took me back.”

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