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John Kiesewetter on the world of local and national TV

Senior Entertainment Reporter John Kiesewetter has been covering TV and media issues for 20 years. After joining the Cincinnati Enquirer in 1975 as a summer intern, he worked as a county government and suburban reporter; assistant city editor and suburban editor; and features editor supervising the Life section. He has a B.S. in journalism from Ohio University.

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Friday, November 02, 2007

Revisiting The Who Tragedy Of 1979

On Sunday I wrote about a terrific documentary about The Who airing Saturday, "Amazing Journey: The Story of The Who" airing Saturday (commercial free 9-11 p.m., VH1). The full-length feature film is a Magic Bus ride through their greatest hits, with concert footage from the Monterey Pop Festival, Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, the "Tommy" and "Quadrophenia" tours, and the 2001 Concert for New York City.

I noted that a couple of minutes in the second hour were devoted to the 1979 tragedy here, when 11 people were crushed trying to get into a concert at Riverfront Coliseum (now US Bank Arena) on Dec. 3, 1979. The concert was sold as "festival seating," or general admission, with the first people in able to get the best seats down front. Drummer Kenney Jones says in the film: "Still it haunts me to this day… Cincinnati was an emotionally devastating situation." Band members Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey aren't quoted about the Cincinnati concert, although they provide a running commentary about the band's five decades throughout the film.

Anyway, the story prompted this e-mail below from Mark Simpson of West Chester Township, who says he was there that night:

Hi, John: I couldn't help but notice the article in Sunday's paper about The Who documentary. You mentioned in the article about The Who concert in Cincinnati, back in 1979, where 11 people were fatally crushed outside the arena, when the crowd impatiently rushed the doors, which had failed to open on time.

I would like to clarify the details of what really happen that night as I was the very first person to get through the door that night. I was 16 years old at the time and remember every detail, like it was yesterday, as the chain of events unfolded during that night. The normal procedure was to have all the doors open at least an hour before the show, as they had always done in all previous shows I attended, this night was different and was noticed immediately.

As the night progressed and the crowd got larger on the plaza, which was very dark by the way, the sound check was going on inside. I had gotten there very early, around 6:30-7:00 pm, and was first at the door. No one was even on the plaza at this point, with the building corner to my left and what was iron railings separating each door to my right.

What struck me as a failure by the Coliseum around 8:20 pm, as the crowd had built itself up to over 3,000 people waiting, as it was cold that night, was one security guard/usher came up to the ONE door I was standing at, the other 10 doors continued to my right side.This usher ONLY opened/unlocked the ONE door and walked away. I realized that this was going to create a real problem as the crowd in the back took one or two steps forward, and just like dominos people fell into the one doorway. I was able to get through as others fell behind me,with no way to get up from the surge.

I can only hope that that the truth gets out about what really happen, as several people blamed the crowd, which in no way could even see up front, or blamed The Who for anything, this was totally the fault of the one usher who did NOT unlock the other remaining 10 or so doors, which would have allowed the flow of the crowd to come in, instead of being bottlenecked in between the building, and the metal railing,which also allowed no escape. Those railings, by the way, are no longer there...

I hope somehow this can be passed on to The Who members, so they can know what happened that night and the true breakdown of problems that lead to the tragedy to unfold. The fact that it was general seating had nothing to do with what took place. This was a slow buildup of the crowd over the hours, with poor lighting on the plaza, structural problems with the door entrance (railings separating each door) and staff not opening ALL doors to allow an even flow of crowds into the main plaza entrance, not a rush to the stage. Please pass this eyewitness account from the very first person through the door that night to The Who members so they can understand they were not at fault.

Feel free to post my comments. I will add that due to this event, the coliseum and the city made some changes to keep this from happening again, but this all could have been avoided in the first place if they had just opened all the doors, before the shows start, as they had been doing all along. General seating is really not an issue, so much as doing the obvious.

I feel very lucky to have made it inside the only open door that night, and will never forget the people that lost their lives, all because the rules were not followed, by Coliseum staff and management.

Thanks John and Best Wishes

Mark Simpson


at 11/03/2007 5:27 PM Blogger EBetsch said...

I was at the December 3rd concert, also. My husband was also there, but we did not know each other at the time. I was 17, and I was with one of my girlfriends. We arrived very early; only a few other people were there, loosely gathering around the different door areas. People started getting closer together, I think because it was cold, and we were all excited about the concert, and talking about it amongst ourselves. Also, as more and more people arrived, we grouped closer together and the people who had arrived first were in the front of that group. There was a bit of a problem, since we weren't sure which of the doors would be opened, and there was a mixture of people with "festival seating" (first come - first serve) tickets, and people with assigned seat tickets. My friend and I had assigned seat tickets; close to the side of the stage, but not on the floor - we knew exactly where we would be sitting; as did many of the people in the crowd. This does not stop the instinctual drive to want to be given accommodation appropriate to when you arrived; people started jockeying for position to be let in first because they arrived first, and the people who were most anxious to improve their position in "line" (it wasn't a line - it was layers of people in a group outside the two adjacent lines of doors) were those who did not have assigned seats and wanted to be close to the stage when they got in. I have always thereafter been amazed that someone put forth the story and others wholeheartedly latched onto the bogus story, that the gathering crowd outside heard music from inside and thought the concert had begun with us all outside. There isn't a bit of truth to that. There was some music being played inside, but it was obviously NOT the Who or the warm up act, and everyone in that group who wasn't a complete idiot, realized that. We all knew we were the only people waiting to get in, and that all of us were still waiting to get in, and what rock group with a sold out concert would go onstage and play to an empty arena? It was a ridiculous hypothesis and for people to still believe that was the cause, boggles the mind.

Since my friend and I were there early, we were close to the front of the group, and just from the size of the crowd and the close together grouping of people, some trying to scoot in front of others, it started getting very warm and uncomfortable. It was cold out, so we were all bundled up, but the heat of the crowd was making me sweat. Usually crowds are seated for concerts fairly early - they want people in there early so they buy programs and drinks and t-shirts and pins, and still have ample time to get comfortable in their spots and go back out to buy drinks and snacks. The scheduled time for the concert was getting closer and closer and we were tired of waiting and becoming progressively more uncomfortable, so the people at the very front started beating on the doors and we were all chanting and hollering for someone to let us in. We could see staff inside, and they looked like they had no idea what to do and they moved back. But it seemed as though they were preparing to open the doors on the one side, so the entire group that was outside the doors to the right of us became insistent on pushing their way toward the left. Eventually, one hapless Colisseum employee opened a door. One door. The crowd became frantic at that point and started really pushing and shoving to get to that door. I am ~5' 2" and my friend was 5' 4" and both of us were petite, so when the crowd started to press in, both of us were feeling ourselves lifted off of our feet and squeezed from every angle. We were both really little, so we were getting pushed backward in the crowd. At one point, my knitted hat was jostled off of my head and since my arms were pinned down, all I could do was watch my hat start moving away from me over the top of the crowd. Some nice young man grabbed the hat and put it back on me and pulled it down hard. My coat was a wrap kind with no buttons and it was being pulled off of me. I still have that coat, complete with the large black footprint on the lining from when I started to be pushed to the ground. My friend had been squeezed out to the side of the crowd and she pulled me up and over to the side with her; we were at least able to breathe, but the crowd pulsed up and back and we were in constant danger of falling down (we did not know that fallng down in that crowd meant that we would likely be trampled, but it was an instinctual feeling of needing to stay on our feet). As we neared the back of the throbbing crowd, we found out what was making the crowd move so violently backward and forward.

There was a small group of men, I would judge to have been in their early 20's, who were laughing and shouting and they were totally out of the crowd - they would back way up and go running at the crowd, pushing as hard as they could, then they would move backward, laughing again. It was a game to them that they were making a huge wave-pool of people. They had long hair and knit caps and army surplus style coats; kind of grungy looking. I cannot believe no one ever mentions this, and I know other people remember this; I also know that if those men, who would be middle aged by now, are still alive, they know that of all the contributing factors, they are very much to blame for killing 11 human beings that night.

Between the guys pushing at the back, and the one door access, opened far to late, that is what killed those people. It wasn't festival seating (my husband and I went to a partial festival seating U2 concert two years ago and it was the most orderly and pleasant concert experience I can remember), it wasn't an unruly crowd, and it most of all was not The Who. Roger Daltrey made an impassioned statement following the tragedy that was published (it's in my scrapbook, but without looking at it I can't remember if it was in Time or Rolling Stone or what); it was a lovely gesture of compassion and sympathy, and I felt badly that apparently The Who felt moral responsibility for having drawn us all there. They had nothing to do with the unfortunate events, I wish someone could communicate that to them.

Knowing our seats were assigned and secure, we wiggled our way totally out of the crowd and waited to trail in behind the pack. When we did, we saw broken glass doors and a few people sitting inside on the floor holding onto what appeared to be hand and head injuries, and there was what looked like blood on some of the broken glass. There were also a few people laying down flat, off to the side, one of whom I remember lookng at as I went through the turnstile and saying to my friend that he looked like he was dead. He had a white sheet on him. A blonde haired girl laying next to him did not have a sheet on her, but her eyes were closed. We just supposed that they had fainted or been hurt or knocked out by the crowd on the way in. We went to our seats, enjoyed the concert thoroughly and when we left, we waved enthusiastically at the cameras and reporters outside - we all thought the concert was huge news to us, so we weren't at all surprised to see reporters outside. We didn't have any idea that 11 people, just like us, had lost their lives. My brother in law was a police officer, so while everyone in Cincinnati in the outside world were hearing the horrible news of which we were unaware, he was checking on the descriptions of the casualties, and there was one little girl about the same size as my friend and I with short brown hair, just like us, who had been killed, so he went to where they had taken the bodies to i.d. the body. How absolutely horrible. I had to take valium for the the way I felt in crowds for about a year afterward, and to this day, I still have terrible claustrophobia in crowds. I know I'm not the only one.

Thank you for giving me an opportunity to share my personal experience of this event.

Ellen Dearing Betsch

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