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INTERPRETER: How and why do mob surges become deadly? | WGN 720 Radio

It has happened at a music festival in Houston, in a football stadium in England, during the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, in a Chicago nightclub and in countless other gatherings: large crowds rush to the exits, onto the playing fields or press against the stage with such force , that people are literally squeezed to death.

And it happened again during a Halloween celebration in the South Korean capital of Seoul, where the crowd surged forward, the narrow street they were on acting as a vice, killing more than 140 people and injuring another 150.

The risk of such tragic events, which decreased when places were closed and people stayed at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, has returned.

Certainly, most events that draw large crowds occur without injury or death, and fans come and go without incident. But the ones that went horribly wrong had some things in common. Here’s a look at why this happens:


While films showing crowds desperately trying to escape suggest that most deaths may be due to trampling, in reality most people who die in crowds are suffocated.

What cannot be seen are forces so strong they can bend steel. This means that something as simple as breathing becomes impossible. People die standing, and those who fall die because the body puts so much pressure on them that breathing becomes impossible.

“While people are struggling to get up, their arms and legs are twisted together. The blood supply to the brain starts to decline,” G. Keith Steele, a visiting professor of crowd science at the University of Suffolk in England, told NPR after Houston’s Astroworld crowd surge last November. “It takes 30 seconds before you pass out, and for about six minutes you’re in a state of pressure asphyxiation. This is generally the cause of death – not crushing, but suffocation.”


Survivors tell stories of being suffocated, pushed deeper under what appears to be an avalanche of flesh as others clamber over them in a desperate attempt to escape. To be pressed against doors that won’t open and fences that won’t budge.

“Survivors described being gradually compressed, unable to move, their heads ‘pinched between arms and shoulders … faces gasping in panic,'” said a report after the 1989 Hillsborough football stadium in Sheffield , England, a man crashed, killing nearly 100 Liverpool fans. “They knew people were dying and they were helpless to save themselves.”


A Chicago nightclub erupted in 2003 after security guards used pepper spray to break up a fight. 21 people died as a result of the crowd surge. And this month in Indonesia, 131 people died when tear gas was fired into a half-closed stadium, sparking a stampede at the exits.

In Nepal in 1988, a sudden downpour forced soccer fans to rush to the closed stadium exits, killing 93 fans. In the latest incident in South Korea, some news outlets reported that the hit-and-run occurred after a large number of people rushed to a bar after hearing that an unknown celebrity was there.

However, a British professor testifying as an expert witness in court cases involving mobs pointed to a variation on the old example of someone yelling “Fire” in a crowded movie theater. He told the AP last year that in the US, more than any other country, what would ignite such a rush for safety is the sound of something yelling, “He’s got a gun!”


Stadiums are filling up again. During the pandemic, teams have taken some creative steps to keep things looking normal during games. Cardboard figures of fans were placed on some seats and muffled the noise of the crowd – a sports version of a humorous show track.

However, now the crowd is back and the danger is back.

“Once you add people into the mix, there’s always going to be risk,” Steve Allen of Crowd Safety, a British consulting firm that works with major events around the world, told the AP in 2021.


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