No single factor is to blame for the tragedy at Travis Scott’s Astroworld Festival at Houston’s NRG Park on Friday that left eight dead and many more injured.
But staging and the layout of the festival site itself may have contributed to the event’s deadly crowd surge.
Conflicts – two or more artists performing concurrent sets on different stages – are commonplace at festivals and often extend to a night’s final performances. On Saturday night at Lollapalooza this year, for instance, four acts began sets on four different stages, staggered by 15 minutes: Journey at 8:15 p.m., Slander at 8:30 p.m., Post Malone at 8:45 p.m. and Marc Rebillet at 9 p.m.; Slander ended at 9:45 p.m., while the other three finished at 10 p.m., when the day’s programming ended.
The varied start and end times reduced foot traffic at the festival site at any single given time. And earlier sets that overlapped with these four performances – Iann Dior (7:45-8:30 p.m.) and Angels & Airwaves (7:45-8:45 p.m.) – forced attendees to choose between catching the ends of sets and arriving late to subsequent ones, or leaving early to secure good spots for the night’s headliners, further dispersing foot traffic during the fest’s evening hours.
By contrast, Astroworld consisted of only two stages: The Chills stage, where Scott performed, and the Thrills stage, where all other acts played prior to his set. Furthermore, a 45-minute gap between the end of SZA’s set – the final Thrills programming – and the start of Scott’s set meant that the estimated 50,000 fans in attendance could stay until the end of the R&B singer’s show without risking missing any of Scott’s performance.
Additionally, the gap between sets meant fans could plan things like getting concessions and going to the bathroom after SZA’s performance and before Scott, rather than having to choose which set to truncate for these necessities.
On paper, the model sounds ideal for music fans, but in practice, it narrows the window where the bulk of attendees will be moving throughout the festival site, creating bottlenecks that can leave dense crowds at risk.
Scott’s elaborate Chills stage, rumored to have cost $5 million, and a 30-minute countdown clock to his performance that began at 8:30 p.m., likely exacerbated fan anticipation and excitement, Variety reported.
“Based on the site’s layout and numerous past experiences,” a 56-page Astroworld security plan obtained by the New York Times read, “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.”
Furthermore, Scott has a history of encouraging fans to ignore security and crowd control measures including barricades; at Astroworld’s 2019 iteration, three attendees were hospitalized after a mass of fans rushed into the event. Chicago police arrested Scott in 2015 after he instructed fans to climb barricades to join him onstage.
“Barricade configuration is easy to get right and dangerous to get wrong,” Event Safety Alliance vice president Steve Adelman wrote on the organization’s website in the wake of Friday’s Astroworld tragedy. “Tightly packed crowds suffer from basic physics in which the people in them tend to oscillate from side to side until someone cannot control their own body weight and falls down. Then the person next to them suffers the same fate, until there is a pile of people who are nearly invisible in the dark, pressing the air out of each other. Barricades in a T-shape at the front of a general admission crowd divide the force of sideways crowd pressure, and also create an aisle for security to see into the crowd in ways that are impossible with a barricade straight across the front of the stage.”
Of course, once trouble began, event organizers and law enforcement officials were faced with another dilemma.
“You cannot just close when you’ve got 50,000 — over 50,000 — individuals, OK?” Houston police chief Troy Finner said during a press conference on Saturday. “We have to worry about rioting — riots — when you have a group that’s that young.”
According to Houston fire chief Samuel Peña, overcrowding wasn’t a factor, as Astroworld’s site can hold up to 200,000 people, four times the event’s estimated attendance.