On December 3rd, 1979 The Who‘s Riverfront Coliseum concert in Cincinnati, Ohio ended in blood, tears and a call for change. It had been four years since The Who played in the area, and their fans were in a frenzy for tickets. Nearly 19,000 tickets were sold in 90 minutes, and scalped ticket prices quickly went into triple digits. Arena rock shows of the seventies were massive displays of wattage, pyrotechnics, and bombast, and The Who rolled into town as one of the biggest bands in the world. Sadly, the souvenirs from this show would be far beyond the usual t-shirts and posters.
Fans gathered hours before the show, with over 14,000 fans with tickets marked “Festival Seating.” Basically put, festival seating was “First Come, First Served,” rewarding die-hard early-arriving fans with the closest spots. Though still a popular method for smaller shows, this proved catastrophic for such a large-scale event. A sizable crowd began building at 1 p.m. By three o’clock, the police arrived to try and maintain order.
The doors, which had been promised to open by 7 p.m., were straining from the mass of humanity packed against them. The venue had woefully underestimated the number of ticket-takers required to appease the rabid crowd, and once the first doors were opened, chaos ensued. Arena personnel, security forces, and police were instantly overwhelmed. The doors became a choke point for the surge, and for those who fell, there was little hope of aid.
According to police reports, when the first two doors opened, the pressing fans toward the front fell, with no chance of regaining their feet. The horde trying to scramble past the blockage knocked over more people, creating mounds five people high. Those on the bottom were trapped in a nightmare of screams, and crushing darkness from which there was no escape. Calls for ambulances and reinforcements were made with increasingly frantic pace. People lay in heaps, shredded clothing and debris were strewn about the blood-stained walls and ground. Shell-shocked people wandered dazed as first responders administered what aid they could on site. Ambulances whisked the more severely injured to local hospitals. In all, 11 people died from injuries sustained near the entrances to Riverfront.
Here’s survivor Ellen Betsch, talking about her experiences in the crowd:
There’s a curious thing that happens to us as a species when we are gathered into large enough groups. A special kind of group think can overload reason and trigger the most basic of instincts, turning all within it’s sphere of influence into creatures of pure reaction. Studies of mass hysteria and panics have found that our non verbal communication skills and overwhelming stimuli can trigger a group response to an inciting incident. Most often, these feelings are based in the flight instinct, as if from some life threatening incident, like a fire.
It’s understandable when fleeing for one’s life, but tragic when directed at something like being the closest one to the stage.
The decision was made to not inform the band of the deaths before the concert. Then-new Mayor Ken Blackwell pushed for the show to go on, fearing an already frenzied crowd’s reaction. The Who did what they did best, playing a top notch show of some of their biggest hits. While the show was in progress, however, reports of the stampede were filtering out on local television and radio stations, and families were fearfully waiting the return of their sons and daughters. A city was heart broken.
Local news reports from that night told the tale:
After the show, when the band was finally informed of the horrific loss of life, they were devastated. All public statements, interviews and comments reflected the bands willingness to accept their part of the blame. Who lead singer Roger Daltrey barely had the words to describe his feelings. He invoked his own children, and humbly apologized from the depths of a father’s shared pain. In our modern litigious climate, it’s refreshing to see a potential defendant in a likely massive civil suit be so forthcoming about culpability, but the band bowed their heads with the rest of the world.
Understandably, the families of the victims and the survivors sued the band, the arena and the promoters, though their settlements would never replace what they had lost that night. Reaction to the events was swift, at least in Cincinnati. A city wide ban on festival style seating was enacted, though it has since lapsed. Other cities, such as Louisville followed suit, but a majority of the nation’s larger cities allowed the practice to continue, though a new awareness and safeguards were enacted to varying degrees.
The writers of popular sitcom WKRP In Cincinnati weighed in on the incident. The show, about the comical doings of a radio station staff, had previously done an episode about the perils of putting on concerts, but this one was different. During the second half of the episode “In Concert,” the cast ended up attending a candlelight vigil held in honor of the fallen. The episode aired little over two months after the tragedy, and attempted to bring the topic of festival seating to the the public discourse.
Watch the whole episode below.
Indeed, this was not even the first such incident at the venue. A 1976 Elton John show had two thousand people show up early and nearly break down the doors. Subsequent shows by Led Zeppelin and Yes set the stage for the eventual disaster. Fire captain James Gamm had openly commented in a 1976 Cincinnati Enquirer piece about the possibility of just such an incident being possible. As often happens with the worst of times, the warning signs were there and ignored. Safety measures have been added to shows across the country, and the percentage of general admission sets greatly reduced at venues of great enough size. These measures have likely saved lives, though the price paid for the lesson was so terribly high in cost.
The night of December the 3rd has become a cautionary tale, a milestone of sadness and a haunting memory for those who were there. No promoter wants to see anyone hurt. No band wants to lose a fan. That night, thirty six years ago, was a perfect storm, and the lives it claimed were sadly preventable. Like all of life’s worst moment, all the survivors can ever do is learn from the mistakes made and move on.
We all stumble from time to time, but it is our duty to catch each other when we can, and to offer our hand to lift up those in need.
The following are the names of those who fell that night, and never regained their feet. Following that, the a setlist from The Who performance they so desperately wanted to hear that night. Their sacrifice was not in vain…may they rest in peace.
Walter Adams Jr. 22 Trotwood OH
Peter Bowes 18 Wyoming OH
Connie Sue Burns 21 Miamisburg OH
Jacqueline Eckerle 15 Finneytown OH
David Heck 19 Highland Heights KY
Teva Rae Ladd 27 Newtown OH
Karen Morrison 15 Finneytown OH
Stephan Preston 19 Finneytown OH
Phillip Snyder 20 Franklin OH
Bryan Wagner 17 Fort Thomas KY
James Warmoth 21 Franklin OH
The Who Concert Setlist for December 3, 1979:
I Can’t Explain
The Punk and the Godfather
Behind Blue Eyes
Music Must Change
Who Are You
See Me, Feel Me
Long Live Rock
I Can See for Miles
Won’t Get Fooled Again
The Real Me
Information for this article was gathered from Cincinnati.com, “Panic At The Who Concert Stampede” An Empirical Assessment by Norris Johnson, The Cincinnati Enquirer and Wikipedia.