From concerts to festivals to parades, people love to gather together in shared experiences. Crowds, however, can go from “Oh, there’s lots of people here” to a dangerous or even deadly situation without much warning.
The world was shocked and saddened by the news of a Halloween festival crowd crush that killed more than 150 people in South Korea, with officials left debating what safety measures could have prevented such a tragedy. The risk of a deadly surge is always present in high-density crowds, so it’s good to know what individuals can do to protect themselves if they find themselves trapped in a wave of people.
Crowd safety expert Paul Wertheimer started going to rock concerts and diving into mosh pits in his 40s, not because he was into Slayer or Metallica or Pantera, but because he wanted to analyze crowd behavior through firsthand experience. He’s now been studying crowds for three decades and has sage advice for what to do if you find yourself in a crowd crush situation.
The first thing to do, he says, is to create an exit strategy right off the bat. Look for exit signs and listen to your instincts. The time to leave a crowd is when you first start to feel uncomfortable, not once a crowd starts to surge.
Once you’re pinned into a crowd crush, it can be nearly impossible to get out. The pressure from being surrounded by bodies pressing into you can be thousands of pounds, which is what leads people to suffocate. People often mistakenly think crowd crushes become deadly due to people being trampled, but that’s not usually the case. Trampling generally happens in a stampede, in which people panic and run over one another, but in a stampede, there’s actually room to move. In a crowd crush, people get jammed so tightly together there’s no space to move individually at all.
Both stampedes and crowd crushes can be deadly, and Wertheimer shared tips for surviving both with ABC News after a scare at a Washington, D.C., Pride parade in 2019. Using a Mardi Gras crowd as a “for instance,” Wertheimer walked Matt Gutman and students from Loyola University New Orleans through changing their body position when stuck in a crowd to stay safer.
“Trust your Spidey sense” is pretty much always good advice. Most people don’t anticipate being trapped in a crowd surge, but it’s a real risk in any high-density crowd situation. If you haven’t managed to get out in time and you find yourself squashed into a human river unable to escape, try to protect your lungs and heart by holding your arms in front of you. If a crowd is tight enough, your arms may not be enough to protect you, but doing this will give you a fighting chance.
Concerts and festivals can be a lot of fun for a lot of people. Knowing how to spot crowd trouble and what to do if a surge happens can help you enjoy those collective experiences with fellow humans more safely.