In some ways, The Who concert tragedy of Dec. 3, 1979 – in which 11 died and many were injured during a crush of fans trying to get into Riverfront Coliseum (now U.S. Bank Arena) for a “festival seating” show — seems like ancient history. But in other ways it’s just like yesterday. The 30th anniversary is Thursday.
Nowadays, one would presume, instant digital and satellite-based personal communications would have alerted everyone — the entire world, actually — that people within that crowd of 8,000-10,000 were trapped and in danger. Back then, to go make a pay-phone call would have meant losing a place in a line that formed a good seven or eight hours before the show started so people could try to get a good spot inside.
“I’ve never seen a photo of the crowd outside, not in our seven months of research as a task force or afterward. It’s amazing to think about that in today’s world,” says Paul Wertheimer, a then-city employee who served as chief of staff for the task force that authored the “Crowd Management” report, calling for post-Who reforms at Cincinnati concerts. (He now runs the L.A.-based Crowd Management Strategies.)
Yet, for those trapped on the public plaza outside the Coliseum that night, where too few doors were open to get them quickly and promptly inside, 30 years is just a blink away. They had to fight to stay alive. Several told their searing, horrifying accounts for WVXU producer Lee Hay’s powerful The Who Concert: 30 Years Later radio special, now available on the station's web site.
“This is still really painful,” Hay says. “This was a major event and it has been forgotten, especially by younger rock and rollers.
In the radio special, Wertheimer — whom Hay interviewed — calls for a marker or memorial to be raised in remembrance of the tragedy, its victims and the subsequent leadership the city played in crowd control.
“That’s the major thing I hope comes out of this special,” Hay says. “There is a need for the city to put up a marker.” (There will be a remembrance Thursday, a vigil walk starting at the arena’s plaza and ending at Christ Church.)
Hay says that if there is anything good to come out of the tragedy it was the "Crowd Management" report. Among other things, it firmly established that the crowd was not the cause but rather a victim of circumstances, forced to turn against its best interests by “festival seating.”
That practice, common at the time, meant only a fraction of the 18,000 concertgoers had a reserved seat. Many didn’t even want seats — they wanted the excitement of standing close to the band on the floor and came early to get the chance. Neither the Coliseum nor the concert producer had a plan in place to handle the crowds waiting early on the plaza, Wertheimer says. And through a variety of delays explained in Hay’s radio special, that was made continually worse, until the crush occurred as the doors finally opened late.
Earlier festival-seating shows by Led Zeppelin and Elton John in Cincinnati had indicated trouble could occur, Wertheimer says.
“Festival seating quickly was deemed the primary motivating element that put the tragedy in motion," he says. "But overall after that there was just a general failure to have a crowd-management plan.
"Every seat is potentially a seat in front of Pete Townshend. It made people in the crowd compete against each other. You force people to come early, force them to push and shove and raise crowd anxiety because they have to get that perfect spot. Whichever spot one person thinks (he) want(s), 50 other people are thinking they want the same one. For crowd safety, you need people working together for the benefit of the crowd.”
In 2004, the city repealed its festival-seating ban but imposed strict limits on its implementation to safeguard fans.
There were 33 lawsuits filed by survivors and injured parties. According to Enquirer stories at the time, 32 were settled out of court in 1983 by five of the six defendants: the city, promoter Electric Factory Concerts, the Coliseum, its president and its directors. In 1984, the same parties settled with the last litigant with no details disclosed. About a week later, sixth defendant The Who settled all its lawsuits without details disclosed, which brought court action to an end.
A 30TH ANNIVERSARY VIGIL WALK Thursday starts at 6:30 p.m. at U.S. Bank Arena’s plaza level, where 11 lanterns will be lit to commemorate those who died on Dec. 3, 1979, and ends two blocks away at Christ Church at 318 E. Fourth St., where a memorial service will be held. Get more details here.