Happy heavenly 101st birthday to Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn!
One of the greatest tragedies in rock music history unfolded in Cincinnati on 3 December 1979, the day before I was supposed to have been born. Had I been born on schedule instead of two weeks later, the headlines on my birthdate would’ve been dominated by news of this preventable tragedy.
My favourite band, The Who, were in the final month of their 1979 world tour, which began on 2 May. They were then in their second U.S. leg of the tour. On 3 December, they played at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum (now Heritage Bank Center). Though the show wasn’t set to start till 8:00 PM, people began congregating outside as early as 1:30. Not just a few diehard fans, but a large crowd.
There were so many people so early because a radio station said festival seating ticket holders would be admitted at 3:00. Of the 18,348 tickets sold, 14,770 were for festival seating (first-come, first-served). Anyone could get a front-row seat if s/he were determined enough.
People expected every door to open simultaneously, but only a pair of doors on the far right to the main entryway opened on schedule. While some concertgoers entered those doors in an orderly fashion, the crowds in front of the other doors continued building.
By 6:30, the crowd had grown to an estimated 8,000. The doors weren’t set to open till 7:00, but many people mistook The Who’s soundcheck for the start of the actual concert. Additionally, it was only 36 degrees, and the windchill from the Ohio River made it feel even more frigid.
The concertgoers wanted in, and now.
People at the back of the line began pushing forward, but this was a short-lived panic (for the moment), as concertgoers quickly realised the doors weren’t open and the concert hadn’t begun. Then people at the head of the lines began pressing forward again and knocked on the doors.
Pandemonium broke out as the crowd heard the Quadrophenia film playing in lieu of an opening act. The mass of humanity began stampeding towards the doors, and many people were trampled, pressed along, swept off their feet, and/or asphyxiated. With only two of 106 doors open, there was nowhere to go but forward, relentlessly forward.
As people in the back continued pushing against the crowd and shouting, they had no way of knowing people in the front were piled up on the ground. Shamefully, the cops refused to do anything, even when begged for help. Some of the doors were guarded by cops with billy clubs.
By the time the so-called lucky ones found their way inside, the crowd was still piling up. People were shoved in through the turnstiles, and ticket-takers seemed to think nothing were amiss. Some people entered through the tops of the doors. Bodies, shoes, clothes, purses, and personal effects worth thousands of dollars were strewn everywhere.
The cops found the first body at 7:54, after about an hour and a half of this horrific stampede. They finally realised just how serious this situation was after the fire department, ambulances, TV crews, the mayor, the fire chief, the city safety director, the Flying Squad from the Academy of Medicine, more cops, and many other people arrived.
Mayor Ken Blackwell, who’d only started his job that day, decided the show must go on, for fear of a riot breaking out inside Riverfront Coliseum. The Who’s manager, Bill Curbishly, also feared a riot and a stampede back out through the plaza. Cincinnati’s fire marshal concurred.
Curbishly knew eleven people had died by the end of the show, and told The Who to be snappy with their encore. When he broke the news after the show, Roger burst into tears.
Many people had previously called out Riverfront Coliseum’s festival seating, which had caused prior stampedes and bottlenecking. Security and fire safety had also previously been found severely lacking. Additionally, there had been calls for gates opening directly into the stadium instead of 106 glass doors.
Mayor Vincent Cianci of Providence, Rhode Island cancelled The Who’s upcoming concert out of fear of more fatalities, despite the fact that the Providence Civic Center had assigned seating. In 2012, Pete and Roger finally returned to Providence and honoured those cancelled tickets.
Cincinnati and many other cities banned festival seating, though Cincinnati later brought it back.
The eleven victims were:
Walter Adams, Jr., age 22
Peter Bowes, age 18
Connie Sue Burns, age 21
Jacqueline Eckerle, age 15
David Heck, age 19, from Kentucky
Teva Rae Ladd, age 27
Karen Morrison, age 15
Stephan Preston, age 19
Philip Snyder, age 20
Bryan Wagner, age 17, from Kentucky
James Warmoth, age 21
May their memories be for an eternal blessing.