© 2021
In touch with the world ... at home on the High Plains
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Astroworld's safety plan called for deceased to be referred to as 'smurfs'

The security and emergency response plan prepared by organizers ahead of the Astroworld festival in Houston lays out details for responding to tornadoes, extreme heat, bomb threats, earthquakes and active shooters.

But the 56-page document never once mentions how to handle a dangerous crowd surge, like what took place during headliner Travis Scott's concert over the weekend — and like the last time the rapper performed at the festival in 2019.

Eight people died in Friday's tragic incident and several hundred were injured. And three people were trampled and hospitalized after concert-goers busted through barricades to get into the venue in 2019.

The latest operations plan, which was obtained by Houston Public Media and provided to NPR, was prepared by a Texas-based security consultant to Live Nation.

Live Nation ignored Travis Scott's reputation for encouraging audiences to go wild, expert says

Given Scott's audience's track record at the previous Astroworld festival two years ago, as well as his other shows, Live Nation should have anticipated there would be some dangerous crowd behavior, Paul Wertheimer, a crowd security expert and founder of Crowd Management Strategies, told NPR.

Scott's concerts are known for raucous crowds and as Houston Public Media reporter Paul DeBenedetto told NPR, the Houston-native is known to encourage fans to dance and mosh.

Fans also expect and look forward to the mayhem of Scott's shows. "If I broke a leg, it was going to be a good thing," one attendee told The Washington Post.

But organizers ignored all that, Wertheimer said.

Instead, they put together a "boilerplate" plan that failed to address the dangers present in standing-room-only events.

"It doesn't address crowd crush or crowd craze, moshing or stage diving. And it doesn't discuss anything significant about what to do in an emergency situation," Wertheimer noted.

What the document does state is the following: "From this plan, the potential from multiple alcohol/drug related incidents, possible evacuation needs, and the ever-present threat of a mass casualty situation are identified as key concerns."

The closest organizers came to addressing how to respond to a crowd surge is in a section of the document related to civil disturbances or riots.

"In any situation where large groups of people are gathering there is the potential for a civil disturbance/riot that can present a grave risk to the safety and security of employees and guests.

"The key in properly dealing with this type of scenario is proper management of the crowd from the minute the doors open," the document states. But there are no details provided on how to do that.

The plan also instructs security personnel to be aware of the possibility of a mob when attempting to detain an unruly or out of control concert-goer. "If detaining the perpetrator, watch for angry groups, mobs forming." But, again, provides no best practices on what to do once that happens.

In the instance of a fatality, staff were told to "never use the term 'dead' or 'deceased' over the radio." Instead, they were told to notify Event Control using the code "smurf."

Event organizers did not respond to NPR's request for clarification on the security plan.

National safety standards say crowd behavior analysis and response plans should be included in concert planning

The National Fire Protection Association has established a set of standards for promoters, venues and city and state leaders to adopt when planning large events.

"A key part of that requires that crowd behavior be considered," Tracy Vecchiarelli, the NFPA's standards lead in the Building Fire and Life Safety Group, told NPR.

"That includes anticipating any type of event that could happen, what the plan is and how you're going to react," she said, adding that "the code has provisions in it that address how to safely accommodate standing-room-only events both indoors and outdoors."

Vecchiarelli said that when considering the number of security personnel and crowd managers that should be hired for any given event and it should be informed by the size and scope of the venue as well as a clear understanding of the artist, the type of audience they draw, and past crowd behavior at previous events.

It is unclear if Live Nation or the city of Houston have agreed to those standards.

Earlier this week, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who called for a thorough investigation into the fatal concert and how it could have been prevented, noted that organizers added stronger fencing, more barricades, additional space for crowd control and more security personnel, in light of the crowd control issues at the 2019 Astroworld show.

On Wednesday, Gov. Greg Abbott announced the formation of a task force on concert safety.

It will be led by Texas Music Office Director Brendon Anthony and will produce a list of recommendations and strategies "to ensure the tragedy that occurred at Astroworld never happens again," according to Abbott.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.