Explanation: how and why do mob waves become deadly?

It happened at a music festival in Houston, at a football stadium in England, on a hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, at a nightclub in Chicago, and countless other gatherings: large Crowds rush to exits, onto playgrounds or press against a stage with such force that people are literally pressed to death.

And it happened again, during Halloween festivities in the South Korean capital Seoul, where a crowd marched forward, the narrow street they were in acting as a vice, leaving more than 140 dead and 150 injured. .

The risk of such tragic accidents, which receded when venues closed and people stayed home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, has returned.

Granted, most events where large crowds gather pass without injury or death, with fans coming and going without incident. But those who went horribly wrong shared some common traits. Here’s why this happens:


While movies that show crowds desperately trying to flee suggest that getting trampled could be the cause of most deaths, the reality is that most people who die in a crowd are suffocated.

South Korea Halloween Crowd Surge

Injured people are helped on the street near the scene in Seoul, South Korea, early Sunday, October 30, 2022.

AP Photo/Lee ​​Jin-man

What you don’t see are forces so powerful they can bend steel. This means that something as simple as breathing becomes impossible. People die standing and those who fall die because the bodies on them exert such pressure that breathing becomes impossible.

“As people struggle to get up, the arms and legs twist together. The blood supply begins to be reduced to the brain,” said G. Keith Still, visiting professor of crowd science at the University of Suffolk in England, to NPR after the Astroworld. crowds in Houston last November. “It takes 30 seconds before you lose consciousness, and about six minutes you’re in compressive or restrictive asphyxiation. That’s usually the assigned cause of death – not crushing, but suffocation.”


Survivors tell breathless stories, pushed deeper beneath what feels like an avalanche of flesh as others, desperate to escape, climb them. To be stuck against doors that won’t open and fences that won’t break.

“Survivors described being gradually compressed, unable to move, their heads ‘trapped between arms and shoulders… faces gasping in panic,'” according to a report after a 1989 human crush at Hillsborough football stadium in Sheffield , England, led to the death of almost 100 Liverpool fans. “They knew people were dying and they were powerless to save themselves.”


At a Chicago nightclub in 2003, a wave of crowds began after security guards used pepper spray to break up a fight. Twenty-one people died in the resulting influx of crowds. And this month in Indonesia, 131 people were killed when tear gas was fired into a half-closed stadium, triggering a crush at the exits.

In Nepal in 1988, a sudden downpour sent football fans rushing to the locked stadium exits, killing 93 fans. In the latest incident in South Korea, some news outlets reported that the thunderbolt happened after a large number of people rushed into a bar after hearing an unidentified celebrity was there. found.

But Still, the British professor who has testified as an expert witness in court cases involving crowds, pointed to a twist on the age-old example of someone shouting “Fire” in a packed cinema. He told the AP last year that what ignites the fuse of such a security rush in the United States, more than in any other country, is the sound of someone shouting: ” He has a gun!”


The stadiums are filling up again. During the pandemic, as games progressed, teams took creative steps to make things feel somewhat normal. Cardboard figurines of fans were placed in some of the seats and crowd noise played – a sports version of a comedy laugh track.

Now, however, the crowds are back and the danger has returned.

“As soon as you add people into the mix, there will always be risk,” Steve Allen of Crowd Safety, a UK-based consultancy engaged in major events around the world, told the AP. in 2021.

Copyright © 2022 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved.


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