In the same fateful week, two monstrous tragedies — a massive crowd crush at Chicago club E2 on February 17 and a fire at a Great White concert in West Warwick, Rhode Island, on February 20 — have brought club-safety issues to light and made the country rethink its approach to venue security.
While the Chicago tragedy was definitely a worst-case scenario (see "What Happened On Night Of Chicago Club Tragedy? One Club Patron Explains") and the Great White fire was the biggest concert-related catastrophe to happen in U.S. history (see "At Least 96 Dead At Rock Show Fire"), neither is totally unprecedented. Crowd crushes killed 11 people at a 1979 concert by the Who in Cincinnati, two teens leaving a 1987 Public Enemy show in Nashville and eight people trying to get into a 1991 charity basketball game played by rappers in New York, to name just a few examples. Likewise, fires took the lives of 492 people at the Cocoanut Grove Club in Boston in 1942, 167 people at the Beverly Hills Supper Club in Southgate, Kentucky, in 1977 and 87 people at the Happy Land Social Club in the Bronx, New York, in 1990.
So, how can you keep yourself safe if a fire ignites or a crowd gets out of control at a concert or club event? Once mass hysteria erupts, there may seem to be little you can do, but crowd management consultant Paul Wertheimer and Chicago Fire Chief John Brogan have a few tips and preventative measures that you can take. These guidelines may seem simple, but they can save your life ...
- Be aware of your surroundings. When you enter the venue make a mental note of where all the doors are. Many of those who survived the fire at the Great White concert credit familiarity with the venue for saving their lives. The building had multiple open exits, but most people ran for the same front door, creating a giant pileup. According to Wertheimer, this is a common and sometimes fatal reaction: "It is human nature to go out the way you came in." Walk around the building and look for exit signs. Every building is required to have a visible floor plan posted. Take a minute to look at the floor plan and make yourself familiar with the venue's layout. Know where the other exits are.
- Check out those other exits. Make sure that none of them are obstructed. If the doors are chained, blocked by boxes or tables, or are otherwise unavailable for any reason, the building is in violation of fire codes and an employee of the venue should immediately be notified. If the employee ignores your concerns, you can contact the police and/or fire department. (Writing a letter to your local paper can also be effective.) More pressing than contacting the authorities is deciding whether or not you're going to remain in a venue you've just determined has exit issues. If you choose to stay, you'd do well to keep near an exit you know is functional.
- Do not let others put you where you are not safe. If you are disabled in any way that makes mobility an issue, do not let security or venue employees put you in an area from which you will have trouble getting out. If you are on crutches or in a wheelchair, for example, the first row (desirable as it may be) might not be the best location for you if the crowd begins pushing toward the stage.
- If your position in the crowd is beginning to make you feel uncomfortable, move to the outer periphery. If you feel pressure coming from one side of the crowd and are having increasing difficulty in moving freely, do not push back. Move away from the source of pressure and take the path of least resistance. There are lulls in any crowd push. Use these lulls to move to open spaces. These spaces are usually located in a diagonal fashion. "I like to call this the accordion move," Wertheimer said. "You just zigzag your way out." If you feel that there are just too many people in the room, or not enough space between tables to get out if you needed to, consider leaving.
- If you feel you can't escape, remain calm and don't panic or scream. One of the people in the Chicago club who survived said he didn't run when the stampede started, instead choosing to huddle by the stage and remain calm. If you're caught in a crowd crush or if you're having trouble getting out of a venue, you need all the energy you have to survive. Reduce your breathing, try to relax and remain quiet. Shouting will only weaken you and make you more likely to fall.
- Try to keep your balance. If you feel yourself falling or fainting, extend your hand to someone nearby. Communication through eye contact will most likely get other people to help. "It's something I've used successfully at the Tibetan Freedom Concert," Wertheimer said. If you are in a walled venue, make your way to a wall so that you can maintain your balance. "Doing this gives you something to lean on for support while also allowing you to follow the natural line of the building to an exit," says Police Chief Brogan. "This is incredibly helpful if you can't see through the chaos."
- Help others if you can without sacrificing your own safety. If someone else is falling or has fallen, help them if you can. One fallen person can cause others to trip over them and create a pileup. Make sure you are not in danger of being trampled before aiding another.
- If you can't get out of an increasing crowd crush, crowd surf. In an emergency situation, where you are injured or can't get out of a crowd that is clamoring toward the stage, crowd surfing can be a quick way to move to a less crowded area or into the arms of security.
- If you need to escape the venue, look for the quickest way out. The direction the crowd may be going is not necessarily the fastest or most accessible exit route. It is not always smart to follow the pack. Make your way to the closest exit with the least people. Move quickly, and do not shove other people. As mentioned before, familiarity with the venue saved the lives of many people at the Great White concert. Those who made for the venue's side exits were able to escape, while many people were caught in a jam of people at the front door.
- In the event of a fire, stay low to the ground and cover your mouth. "Smoke inhalation kills fire victims more often than actual flames do," says Fire Chief Brogan. Since smoke rises, crouch your body as low to the ground as you can while making your way out.
- If you catch fire, stop, drop and roll. Fire needs oxygen to feed it. By dropping to the ground and rolling, you cut off that supply and smother the fire.
- Lastly, wear recognizable clothing and agree on a plan with your friends ahead of time if you need to evacuate. Before you go into the venue, designate a place outside where you will meet if you do lose track of one another inside. Dress in a way that your friends might recognize you if you are separated. This doesn't mean you need to put on a fluorescent jacket. It just means you should ask the question: "Will my friends be able to pick me out of the crowd?" If you are wearing a standard black T-shirt in a throng of other black T-shirts, chances are your friends won't be able to spot you. Make yourself recognizable. Sometimes, that may just mean wearing a patterned or red shirt. Be aware of what your friends are wearing as well.
You don't need pyrotechnics for the club you're in to catch fire. Grease can spill and catch fire in a bar kitchen. A lit cigarette can start something burning. Ninety-seven healthy, intelligent young people died in Rhode Island because they couldn't get out of a room in a fast and orderly manner. In Chicago, panic and confusion over exits appear to have been key in the death of 21 people. The experts agree: Have a good time when you go out, but pay attention to the space you're in. And no matter what you see or what you're told, if you don't feel safe, the advice is to trust your instincts and leave.
MTV News will revisit the recent nightclub tragedies in Rhode Island and Chicago and explore club safety issues in a special edition of "The Wrap" premiering Sunday at 9:30 p.m. on MTV2. The special MTV News report will air again Tuesday at 8:30 a.m., Wednesday at 12:30 p.m., Friday at 1 p.m., and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. on MTV2.