“Open the Doors!”: The Problem of Ingress
Most life safety literature addresses how to get people out of buildings. By contrast, the issue of how to safely let people into buildings has mostly been ignored. The fatal Black Friday crowd crush at Wal-Mart may change that.
It is curious that ingress had been swept aside, since much of the attention we give to life safety began with the 1979 ingress disaster before a concert by The Who at Riverfront Coliseum. Although every reader of Facility Manager knows that story in general terms, the specifics are striking for their similarity to the November, 2008 Wal-Mart disaster. The fact that so little seems to have changed in twenty-nine years may have significant legal consequences.
Cincinnati, 1979. On December 3, 1979, the promoter let reserved ticket holders enter Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati while 8,000 general admission ticket holders waited outside. The building had plenty of doors, but opened only a few, reportedly because they did not have enough ticket takers. There were just 25 guards for a crowd listed around 16,000 people. When fans rushed the open doors to get good seats, eleven people were crushed to death. The first people to get inside left bloody footprints on the concrete floor.
Long Island, 2008. Like many retailers, Wal-Mart opened its stores early the day after Thanksgiving. The extra sales generated by opening early are an important part of what has come to be called “Black Friday,” the day retail income is finally in the black for the year.
The Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, New York, hired extra security guards in anticipation of the crowds that would arrive for pre-dawn discounts. One of them was 34 year old Jdimytai Damour, who was six feet five inches tall and weighed 270 pounds but had no training in security or crowd control in the short time he worked for Wal-Mart. On Thanksgiving night, a crowd began waiting outside in anticipation of a 5:00 AM opening and deep discounts.
When the store opened, Mr. Damour was knocked down trying to protect a pregnant woman from 2,000 stampeding shoppers. Like many of the Riverfront Coliseum victims, he died of compressive asphyxia, the weight of other bodies that caused his heart to stop beating. One of police detectives investigating Mr. Damour’s death later said, “This crowd was out of control. … They overran him and kept running into the store. They pushed right over his body.”
Wal-Mart subsequently hired a team of experts to develop a crowd management plan for the company’s 92 New York stores. Meanwhile, three brothers and a sister of Mr. Damour filed a civil lawsuit against all the companies allegedly involved with his death.
The purpose of this article is not to single out Wal-Mart. To the contrary, the tragedy on Long Island is notable more for its publicity than its uniqueness. Consider these other recent examples, which collectively help identify some of the key issues that lead to ingress problems.
On February 10, 2005, five people were hospitalized at the opening of a new Ikea store outside London, England. The store’s preparations included blanketing the area with advertisements of discounts and working with emergency services to deal with the hoped-for crowds. The former efforts were wildly successful, as the anticipated crowd of 2,000 grew to 6,000 people at the midnight opening. But crowd management arrangements failed to keep bargain-hunters from abandoning their cars in the roadway or from pushing through other eager patrons as doors were opened.
On March 14, 2009, six people were hurt and three more arrested while a crowd waited on a Manhattan street for an open casting call by “America’s Next Top Model.” Reportedly a fight had broken out among would-be contestants when a smoking car passed. Shouts about a bomb led to people climbing over each other and the barricades to get away. Security had little control and there were no means of informing people that the smoke was innocent vehicle exhaust.
On May 4, 2009, a refusal to allow fans to re-enter the new Yankee Stadium nearly turned into a riot. During a two hour and 17 minute delay before a Yankees-Red Sox game, the Stadium provided just two announcements: one shortly before the scheduled 7:05 PM start time stating the obvious fact that the game was delayed by rain; the other about two hours later saying the game would begin around 9:20 PM. Before the second announcement, some Stadium employees announced that the game was cancelled, causing many cold and wet fans to leave the building. When that turned out to be wrong, guards at some gates allowed reentry while others strictly enforced the “no re-entry” policy in the fine print on each ticket. Not surprisingly, a commotion ensued, although only one person was arrested and no one was hurt.
Enter the Lawyers
After a problem, litigation follows as surely as night follows day. Liability for these ingress problems turns mostly on the following questions:
Could the crowd managers have reasonably foreseen a crowd like the one they had to deal with that day?
Given what they knew or should have known, what could they have done to better manage the crowd and avoid the harm that occurred?
In ingress situations, the first question is usually easy. There is a crowd waiting anxiously at the doors precisely because the venue has promoted whatever is about to happen inside. In other words, a big group with an adrenaline rush is not only foreseeable, which is the legal standard, it is the express goal of the event. Therefore, there is little excuse for being unprepared for them.
One of the common defenses in crowd crush cases is that the crowd got “out of control.” Legally, however, that is not the point. By 2009, a venue hosting an arguably exciting event should reasonably foresee people getting crazy, and should factor that into their risk management plan. Event planners cannot avoid liability by blaming their patrons if history clearly indicates their patrons will need protection from themselves.
In a lawsuit, evidence supporting the foreseeability of a rowdy crowd is as readily available as the newspaper ads, radio and TV spots, and online advertising for the event. A savvy lawyer will demand production of the promotional budget for the event and compare it with the budget for safety to suggest that the organizers put “profits over people.”
The question of what could have been done better has several parts as well. First, it is important to accept that virtually nothing is undocumented in public. Every disaster will be digitally recorded and downloaded to the Internet moments after the dust settles. Denial is pointless, and the importance of your public information officer rises daily.
Second, the list of better alternatives is limited only by the knowledge and creativity of the victims’ lawyer. Consider the trade show floor at IAAM’s annual conference, where many vendors offer services and technologies to help with crowd management. They are the next standard of care. Likewise, routine situations from the local deli counter to Southwest Airlines’ ticket line suggest alternatives to making people wait in the cold until they stampede through a bottleneck. And channels of communication, one of the easiest things to plan in advance, are often the first to break down in a crisis.
In light of the history of ingress incidents, juries are going to be increasingly unsympathetic to expressions of surprise that crowds could have so much trouble entering confined spaces. When you invite people to your facility, you must plan for them to both enter and exit safely. If you don’t, the next people through the door will be lawyers.