Astroworld’s safety plan failed to account for key crowd issues, expert says

The 56-page event operations plan for Astroworld failed to address crowd surge and other key crowd issues common at this type of event, according to documents reviewed by Houston Public Media.


Amy Harris/Invision/AP
Festival goers are seen at day one of the Astroworld Music Festival at NRG Park on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021, in Houston.

The official event operations plan for the Astroworld festival provided detailed instructions for handling a range of emergency situations: severe weather, power loss, an active shooter, a bomb threat.

But the 56-page plan failed to address crowd surge and other key crowd issues common at this type of event, according to documents reviewed by Houston Public Media.

An analysis of the plan also raises questions about how closely certain safety protocols were followed.

The plan offered a "boilerplate" response to concert emergencies and failed to address concerns for this specific event, according to crowd safety expert Paul Wertheimer, who also reviewed the event operations plan.

"There is no mention in this report of the crowd in front of the stage and how to manage them," he said. "No mention of that area where the disaster occurred."

Wertheimer added that the plan doesn't address a range of key crowd issues, such as a crowd surge, moshing, and crowd collapse.

"That's all you need to know about that plan," he said. "It didn't even address the crowd."

Amy Harris/Invision/AP
Travis Scott performs at the Astroworld Music Festival on Nov. 5 in Houston.

Wertheimer, who has investigated past concert tragedies, said he sees parallels between Astroworld and other fatal concerts.

"I've seen this recurring night concert nightmare for 40 years," he said, pointing to the 2000 Pearl Jam concert in Denmark as one example. During that outdoor concert, nine concertgoers were crushed to death in front of the stage.

"The point is the concert and festival industry knows that there's a problem and it's continually ignored and this time it hit Houston," Wertheimer said.

Both Wertheimer and crowd surge expert Tracy Pearl agree the chaos at Astroworld may have been preventable. Pearl, a law professor at the University of Oklahoma, argued that venues often allow too large of a standing-room crowd on the floor close to the stage.

The answer, Pearl said, may be to ban general admission at such large events, and reduce the density near the stage.

"We have known how to prevent these sorts of tragedies for decades, but venues continue to refuse to take the basic steps that they can take to virtually eliminate the chance that people will be injured or killed in this way," Pearl said.

Officials have said analyzing the emergency plans will be a key part of the investigation into Friday night's incident when at least eight people died and more than a dozen were injured after a sold-out Astroworld Festival crowd surged toward the stage during rapper Travis Scott's set.

"LiveNation & Astroworld put together plans for this event, a security plan, a site plan. They were at the table with Harris County and Houston," Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said at a press conference Saturday. "Perhaps the plans were inadequate. Perhaps the plans were good, but they weren't followed. Perhaps it was something else entirely."

Amy Harris/Invision/AP
Festival goers are seen rushing into the VIP area during day one of the Astroworld Music Festival at NRG Park on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021, in Houston.

In the introduction to the security plan, the organizers reference past experiences and the site's layout as factors that influenced the plan's development.

"The potential for multiple alcohol/drug related incidents, possible evacuation needs, and the ever-present threat of a mass casualty situation are identified as key concerns," reads the document.

The 56-page plan then goes on to outline protocols for different scenarios, stating that "many incidents will be minor, and a few will be complex."

It goes through the simple — lost persons — and the more complicated — like an active shooter.

It outlines what to do when someone dies: "Notify Event Control of a suspected deceased victim utilizing the code ‘Smurf'. Never use the term ‘dead' or ‘deceased' over the radio."

But the closest the plan comes to addressing crowd issues is a section outlining what to do to prevent a civil disturbance or riot, stating that the key to dealing with that type of situation is "proper management of the crowd from the minute the doors open."

Videos from Friday's festival show attendees storming the entrance as soon as the gates opened at 2 p.m., bypassing security from the beginning.

"That's a less-than-subtle warning sign that a segment of the crowd is going to be problematic and maybe even the whole crowd," said Wertheimer, the crowd safety expert.

He added that the operations plan also stopped short of specifically addressing gate crashers and fence jumpers.

Other aspects of the plan also do not seem to have been enforced. In one section, it outlines the importance of checking bags, saying that "comprehensive bag checks" would be conducted at all event entry points to ensure that prohibited items wouldn't be taken inside.

But in interviews with Houston Public Media, several attendees described seeing lax security at the entry points and people selling drugs inside the venue.

"When we started walking through they were like, ‘put everything on the sides, take everything out of your pockets,'" said 19-year-old Luke McMahan, who attended the concert with friends. "But we didn't, we just kept on walking through and they didn't say anything."

Festival attendees told Houston Public Media that the crowd began to get out of control right before Scott took the stage. The rapper's set was preceded by a countdown, and as it approached zero — around 9 p.m. — the surge began.

"I've never attended a concert like this," said Chamari DeSilva, who attended with her 16-year-old niece. "I was compressed from every side of my body, to the point where I couldn't even move to get out. It was that tight."

At some point, DeSilva tried to escape the chaotic scene. She said she reached out to a nearby security guard, who offered no help.

"To look around and see the sheer panic on everyone's eyes around me, and hearing my niece scream," she said, "no one should ever live through anything like that."

Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
A memorial was set up outside of NRG Park after the Astroworld tragedy that left eight people dead. Photo taken Nov. 8, 2021.

Other attendees say the event atmosphere was tense throughout the day.

Nathan Rodriguez, an 18-year-old who traveled from California to attend the show, said he saw crowds begin to get rowdy hours earlier during rapper Don Toliver's set.

"My dad was there and my friend. We got separated because of all the crowds that were pushing and getting shoved," he said. "I saw like three girls getting carried out. And after that I thought, like, ‘I can't take it no more.' Like on the third song from Don Tolliver, I got out."

The plan lists the "executive producer" and "festival director" as having the "authority to stop the show." It also outlines an incident command structure for emergencies and goes over protocols for how to evacuate the venue if necessary.

Police say they started to see people collapse around 9:30 that night, and reached out to organizers. But the concert didn’t stop for about another 40 minutes.

The mayor and Houston police have defended the gap in response time, arguing that abruptly stopping the show could have caused a riot.

The Houston Police Department’s homicide and narcotics divisions are conducting a criminal investigation into the incident and Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has also said the commissioners are working on determining a path for “an independent, objective assessment."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified where Tracy Pearl works. She is a professor at the University of Oklahoma.

Paul DeBenedetto, Matt Harab, Cory McGinnis and Lucio Vasquez contributed to this report.