Part 5: The Great White Elephant in the Room: The Crowd

This is the fifth and final post of a series about the injuries and issues related to fire safety in buildings.  The aim has been to describe some of the historical hazards about building fires and inform readers about the importance of fire safety in public places, and perhaps above all to be vigilant in your fire safety and demand excellence of those responsible for the building or event. 

If you recall, the series was spurred by the comparison between my fear related to two compromising situations: to be stuck in the water with a deadly shark versus to be stuck in a building during a fire.  I confessed that being stuck in a building was not only my preference among the two bad options, but that I was confident that I could easily escape a building fire.  With the help of some ancient wisdom and by looking at some tragic fires in our country, I tried to scare myself off my arrogance about the ease of fire escape.

But it’s arrogant to think that the fire itself is all I’d need to escape when in a crowded building.  We also need to escape the crowd itself. 

The Jaws of the Crowd

Imagine you are at that Great White concert in Rhode Island ten years ago, but this time the show starts without a hitch, there’s no pyrotechnics malfunction, no fire at all.  By mid-show the venue is packed above capacity, a good portion of the audience is sufficiently boozed up, and the band’s songs begin to sound the same (at least for those non die hard fans, dragged to the occasion by a significant other).  

This time, instead of a fire, something else unexpected happens that unsettles the crowd.  Something that incites a mass rush toward the exit.  For example, someone yells “bomb,” the band stops and announces that its going to finish its concert outside starting in 3 minutes, or several of the over-inspired audience members create a hysterical melee by biting other audience members. 

Even without the fire, you’ve been confronted with a clear and present life-threatening danger.  From what we now know about the venue and arrangements that evening, there still would have been a loss of life in the event of a fireless emergency. 

There were reported to be four possible exits.  At least one survivor testified that a bouncer refused to allow egress from the back door.  Most headed for the front door - it’s a natural human reaction.  Even more accounted the piling up of bodies at the front exit. Many of the deaths occurred as result of the ensuing stampede - people  getting trampled on by other people while trying to get out the front door. 

Of course, there really is no need for the hypothetical derived from the Rhode Island fire. 

There is a tragic irony about the Rhode Island nightclub fire.  A lesser known fact about the fire is that a news reporter (who was alleged to obstruct the escape) was there to do a piece about nightclub safety inspired by a fireless event in Chicago three days earlier that resulted in 21 deaths.  

The E2

On February 17, 2003, in Chicago at the E2 nightclub, after security used pepper spray to break up fight, the patrons on the lower floor of the club began rushing toward the exits. The main entrance, which rested at the top of a stairwell, was allegedly the only operative exit with doors that only opened inward.  The patrons panicked and rushed out 21 people were crushed trying to escape up the stairwell.

Patrons on the upper floor of the club were unaware of the cause of panic, and did not even know what was going on as they watched the people pile up on the stairwell.

While often preventable, stampede injuries are not uncommon where people gather in large numbers, such as sporting events, concerts or religious events.  It’s the responsibility of the property owners or property managers and their staff; the event planners; the security personnel; the performers, the MCs, or the event leaders to prevent crowd stampedes from occurring.  Helpful research on these matters may be found at http://www.crowdsafe.com/FruinCauses.pdf.

Its simply human nature that we go out the same way we come into a place.  (Even the philosopher Heraclitus would agree, “The way up and the way down are one and the same.” Heraclitus, fragment 60.)  But when leaving with a crowd, better to discard our impulse and even the ancient wisdom.  Last month, a Chicago news station reflected on the 10 year anniversiary of the E3 event and interviewed a safety professional Paul Wertheimer about the hazards related to crowds.  (Watch it here.)  Wertheimer advises us to avoid leaving the same way we enter whe a large crowd is involved,  leave large events through auxillary exits, and if you feel uncomfortable with the crowd—find a safe place out of the path of the crowd.  

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 of this series.

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