The Who concert disaster
|Date||December 3, 1979|
|Location||Riverfront Coliseum, Cincinnati, U.S.|
The Who concert disaster occurred on December 3, 1979, when British rock band the Who performed at Riverfront Coliseum (now known as Heritage Bank Center) in Cincinnati, Ohio, United States, and a crush of concert-goers outside the Coliseum's entry doors resulted in the deaths of 11 people.
The Who were in the midst of the United States leg of their 1979 world tour, which began in September with a total of seven dates split between the Capitol Theatre in Passaic, New Jersey and Madison Square Garden in New York City. The band then took some time off and would resume the tour on November 30 at the auditorium of the Detroit Masonic Temple. The Cincinnati concert was the third show played in this portion of the tour, after a concert the night before at the Pittsburgh Civic Arena.
A few hours before the show, a sizeable crowd had already gathered outside the front of the arena. Around 7,000 people were there by 7 p.m. Entry to the arena was through a series of individual doors all along the front of the arena, as well as a few doors at each side. The crowd focused at each of the doors. The doors were not opened at the scheduled time, causing the crowd to become increasingly agitated and impatient. During this period, the Who undertook a late soundcheck. Some members of the crowd heard this and mistakenly believed that the concert was already starting. Some people in the back of the crowd began pushing toward the front, but this rush soon dissipated as the crowd realized that no entry doors had been opened and that the concert had not in fact begun yet.
Summary of events
People were originally told through a radio station that GA ticket holders would be admitted at 3:00 p.m. and therefore a sizable crowd formed by 5:00 p.m. Although all the doors were expected to be opened simultaneously, only a pair of doors at the far right of the main entrance were finally opened. As concert goers entered the stadium through these two open doors, those waiting in front of all of the other doors began pushing forward again. After a short period of waiting and then knocking on the doors and the glass next to the doors, the crowd assumed that none of the remaining doors would be opened. At about 7:15 p.m., the real trouble began. Conflicting reports suggested that concertgoers could hear either a very late soundcheck or The Who's Quadrophenia movie, in lieu of an opening act. Either way, the crowd assumed that The Who were on earlier than scheduled. At that point, the entire crowd surged and pushed toward the two doors which had been opened. This caused many people to get trampled while some suffered more serious injuries. Eleven people were unable to escape the dense crowd pushing toward them and died by asphyxiation. Twenty-six other people reported injuries.
The concert went on as planned, with the band members not told of the tragedy until after their performance. The following night, a lengthy segment on the tragedy aired on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite examining violence at rock concerts. Guitarist Pete Townshend was interviewed by CBS News correspondent Martha Teichner, comparing crowd reactions at concerts to football and boxing matches, calling them "high energy events". The following show in Buffalo the next night, Roger Daltrey told the crowd: "We lost a lot of family last night. This show's for them."
In Providence, Rhode Island, Mayor Vincent A. Cianci cancelled a scheduled performance of The Who at the city's Civic Center that same month. This was despite the fact that the Providence venue had assigned seating. Thirty-three years later, the band returned to Providence and honored tickets from the 1979 show.
The families of the victims sued the band, concert promoter Electric Factory Concerts, and the city of Cincinnati. The class action suit filed on behalf of ten of the families was settled in 1983, awarding each of the families of the deceased approximately $150,000 ($385,000 today). The family of Peter Bowes opted out of the class action and settled later for an undisclosed amount. Approximately $750,000 ($1,925,200 today) was to be divided among the 26 injured. The city of Cincinnati also imposed a ban on unassigned seating on December 27, 1979, with minor exceptions, for the next 25 years.
Eleven weeks after the concert took place, the television sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati aired the very special episode In Concert showing some of the show's characters attending the concert, learning afterwards of the deaths, and their reaction to having helped promote it on the radio station.
The eleven people who died in the crush were:
- Walter Adams, Jr., aged 22, Trotwood
- Peter Bowes, aged 18, Wyoming, Ohio
- Connie Sue Burns, aged 21, Miamisburg
- Jacqueline Eckerle, aged 15, Finneytown
- David Heck, aged 19, Highland Heights, Kentucky
- Teva Rae Ladd, aged 27, Newtown
- Karen Morrison, aged 15, Finneytown
- Stephan Preston, aged 19, Finneytown
- Philip Snyder, aged 20, Franklin
- Bryan Wagner, aged 17, Fort Thomas, Kentucky
- James Warmoth, aged 21, Franklin
The incident was the subject of a book, Are The Kids All Right? The Rock Generation And Its Hidden Death Wish, as well as a second-season episode of WKRP in Cincinnati called "In Concert". It also inspired scenes in the film Pink Floyd—The Wall, whose 1982 premiere was attended by the Who's Pete Townshend.
In 2004, the city of Cincinnati permanently repealed its long-standing ban on unassigned seating, two years after temporarily making an exception for a Bruce Springsteen concert. The goal of lifting the ban was to attract more big-name acts. However, the city now mandates there must be nine square feet per person at a venue, and the number of tickets sold for each event is adjusted accordingly.
Paul Wertheimer, the city's first Public Information Officer at the time of the tragedy, went on to serve on a task force on crowd control, and later founded Crowd Management Strategies in 1992, a consulting firm based in Los Angeles.
The P.E.M. Memorial was created in August 2010 to commemorate the lives of those who were tragically lost while awaiting entry to the concert. Every first Saturday in December, local musicians perform at the P.E.M. Memorial. The free concert features old and new tunes to raise awareness of the P.E.M. Scholarship Fund. While there were a total of 11 lives lost that fateful evening . . . three were from Finneytown High School – Stephan Preston, Jackie Eckerle and Karen Morrison. Three scholarships are awarded annually to eligible Finneytown High School seniors who are pursuing higher education in the arts or music at an accredited university or college.
In 2014, Pearl Jam played in the city and acknowledged the tragedy. They dedicated a cover of the Who's "The Real Me" to those who died. Pearl Jam had experienced a similar tragedy in 2000, when nine people died in a crush during their concert at Roskilde Festival.
On the eve of the 35th anniversary of the tragedy, Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley promised to have a historical marker on the site of the tragedy in 2015. A Committee consisting of three concert survivors, and one family member of victim Teva Ladd were pivotal in getting the memorial placed, Mike Babb, Thomas, Brown, Kasey Ladd and Rick Schwitzer. The marker was dedicated at U. S. Bank Arena (as it was then known) on December 3, 2015.
The Showtime series Roadies dedicated an entire episode to the 1979 event. The episode, "The City Whose Name Must Not Be Spoken", showcases the "roadies" of a fictional band completing many rituals after someone on the tour bus mentions Cincinnati.
On December 4, 2019, 40 years after the tragedy, The Who announced that they would be performing in Cincinnati for the first time since their show there in 1979. The show was scheduled for April 23, 2020 at the BB&T Arena at Northern Kentucky University which is a few miles away from where their concert took place in 1979. However, it was rescheduled for an unspecified date in Fall 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Pete Townshend said in a documentary that aired on the anniversary of the tragedy "we need to go back to Cincinnati, you know, we do. As soon as we can. It would be such a joyous occasion for us, and such a healing thing." Townshend also recently said that he regretted that the band did not stay around to mourn with others at the venue on the night of the tragedy saying "I'm not forgiving us. We should have stayed."
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