No doubt most readers of this website have heard about the recent tragedy in Itaewon where over 150 people died in a crowd crush incident. Knowing about this awful incident has made many of my readers concerned and asking questions such as: how can I ensure my safety at an event, and not die in a crowd crush? This post has the answers, read on as Kpopalypse talks all about crowd crushes and venue safety!
OKAY SO HOLD UP WITH THE ESSAY FOR A FUCKING SECOND KPOPALYPSE BECAUSE I AM ACTUALLY IN A CROWD CRUSH RIGHT NOW WHAT THE FUCK DO I DO, GIVE ME DOT POINTS QUICKLY I AM ABOUT TO DIE
- Stay upright, no matter what. This is the most important point, which is why it’s first. If you fall over it will create a domino effect where other people then fall on top of you and it will be impossible to get back up. Watch for obstacles – which may include other people who have already fallen. Stop others from falling if you can, but only if you can do so without compromising your own stability, because if you fall, chances are excellent that it’s all over. The best way to stand for maximum stability is a “fighting stance” with one foot slightly in front of the other and knees slightly bent, maintain this when possible as it will make it harder to get knocked over by the crowd, but deviate from this stance if it’s a choice between adopting a less ideal posture or falling over.
- Create space in front of you. Push your elbows out to your sides and your arms out in front of yourself. People die in crowd crushes because their chest cavity gets constricted and they can’t breathe, so aside from staying upright your immediate aim is to create as much space around the front of your upper body as you can. However don’t be too rigid or forceful about it either, this isn’t perfect because you can still end up crushing your lungs if you have your arms out too stiffly – the force of other people pushing on your arms will just transfer to your torso if you don’t allow a little “give” so let your arms bend a bit to take some of the direct force off your torso when you get pushed around by the crowd. You’re creating a malleable cushion, not a hard barrier.
- Don’t remove clothing or bags. Anything you are wearing, especially on your top half, leave it on, even if it’s uncomfortable. The more space or shielding you can create between other people and your chest, the more chance you have of survival. If you have a bag that can be worn, wear it. A light backpack with a few things in it can be a lifesaver, it can prevent people crushing your torso directly from the rear, combine this with the arms/elbows thing for your front and sides and now you have a small buffer zone for your upper body that completely surrounds you, as long as you remain upright.
- Don’t pick up anything that falls. No matter what it is. Your phone and wallet/purse are not more important than your life, which you probably will also lose if you bend over to grab things from the floor during a crowd crush.
- Avoid hard surfaces and narrow spaces. You do not want to be pinned up against a wall or barrier of any kind. You might be thinking that a barrier at the front of a stage might be a route to safety if you can flip yourself over it, and under normal conditions that might be true, but in a crush such a move is nearly impossible to execute, you’re better off being away from any barrier. You might also think that fire exit leads to safety, and it might, but it also might not if you can’t get there safely because it’s on the other end of a long thin hallway where people are dying (more on that later). Do your best to assess the situation before taking action.
- Go with the flow. Don’t fight directly against the tide of people to try and break through. In a crowd crush the waves of force flow like water and just one person can’t push against it. Conserve your strength, use it for staying upright, alert and situationally aware, you need to endure and remain standing until you can find a clear way out, and then move sideways towards it when the flow of the crowd allows it. Crowd crushes are terrifying and dangerous but always temporary, an escape route will present itself eventually if you can stay alive.
- If you do fall and can’t get up, attempt the foetal position. This is a last resort obviously and may or may not be possible depending on how heavily and where you are being crushed from, attempt it if you can. By curling up you’re not only protecting your head from other people’s shoes, you’re also creating some space at the front of your body so your chest has room to expand and breathe. Your odds of survival are super low in this scenario but this could be enough to keep you alive.
Since you’re still reading at this point, you survived the crush, congratulations! Now for the essay about background information plus what to do for next time.
JUST A QUICK THING ON WHY I’M WRITING THIS
I’ve been hesitant to write on this topic because I don’t want to use such a tragic event to farm clicks or engagement (as we know certain other k-pop websites are fond of doing) even though my site carries no advertising so I gain nothing from this extra engagement anyway except lowering my own reputation even more. However I’m also getting a lot of sincere requests to write about this subject from my lovely readers who know about my extensive background in live music events and are asking questions to the effect of “I plan to attend [event x] soon and I’m now a little scared to even go, how can I best ensure my safety?” So I’ve deliberately waited a little while for the media storm to die down before writing this post… but not too long, because I want this information to reach you before it’s time for you to go and see oppar gyrate at the front of the stage while sweat drips from his toned abs and everybody screams.
My qualifications to post about this:
- I have managed events, and worked as a fire safety warden
- I have performed at even more events
- I have been to even more events as an audience member and been in a LOT of crowds
- I have experienced what it’s like to be in multiple types of crowd emergency scenarios and know what many of these situations look like from the perspective of an audience member AND a performer AND someone professionally responsible for safety AND have had professional training in how to deal with all of it
Yes there are plenty of other guides, threads, videos etc about this topic. However they vary in quality – some of them are getting details wrong, or missing important information. I recently laughed when I watched a video about crowd crushes (just before Itaewon actually) and after a lot of really extensive background and history the only advice given was “get out”, you probably could have figured out that part on your own. I’ll do my best to give you advice that is actually practical, as well as use the opportunity to talk about safety more holistically. Note that Kpopalypse is not, and never has been, a “news” site – so I won’t address the Itaewon incident much specifically, the point of this post isn’t to pick apart that incident or apportion blame, but just to give you advice on how to not find yourself in a situation similar to that in future. So let’s talk about this stuff.
SHOULD I JUST NOT GO TO K-POP CONCERTS? THAT’D WORK, WOULDN’T IT?
Crowd crushes are common, and becoming increasingly more common with higher population density in many parts of the world, and especially right now with the gradual return to more live events and group activities after COVID. A crowd crush can happen at any type of event where people are packed in too tightly (5-6 people per square meter), and while this commonly happens at music events, music crowds and venue staff are also the most experienced in handling them, which lowers the risk in some cases. The most fatal crowd crushes in history have mostly not been at concerts, but large religious gatherings, sporting events, and unplanned emergency evacuations. So while obviously the best way to not be in a crowd crush is to not be in a crowd at all, simply declaring “I just won’t see my faves next time they come to my city” does not guarantee that you’ll never be faced with this kind of situation.
There is however a lot of wisdom in avoiding crowds in general, to whatever extent this is realistic. As a painfully introverted person it’s my natural instinct to not want to be in crowded areas, despite the fact that I have to be in them constantly due to some aspects of my line of work, so practising good crowd safety came naturally to me long before I knew anything about it in a professional context. My guide on attending k-pop concerts actually advises how to enter and exit a packed concert venue while encountering the minimum amount of people possible, and I didn’t just write that stuff in there because I’m antisocial – there’s good public safety reasons to minimise unnecessary contact. Being where the crowd isn’t is always a good option, the trick is to strike the balance between this and still enjoying life plus seeing the events that you want to see.
HOW TO REALISTICALLY ASSESS THE THREAT OF A CROWD CRUSH
So how do we know we’re in a potentially dangerous situation? At an organised event, lack of correct management practices is the root cause of all crowd crushes, because the situations that create a crowd crush shouldn’t even exist in the first place if crowds are properly managed. So a really good way to assess the threat level in any particular crowd situation is to look around and ask yourself “how carefully is my immediate environment being managed?” So let’s talk about event management.
Firstly, what are we classifying as an ‘event’ anyway? It’s important to define an event as broadly as possible, because knowing when an ‘event’ is occurring can give you some clue about who might be responsible for ‘event management’. For instance, while the Itaewon Halloween situation was not one event, but a culmination of various events taking place at once inside different separate venues, this doesn’t mean that event management outside these venues isn’t required or isn’t anyone’s responsibility – when events spill out onto the streets and create congestion or other disturbances this becomes the domain of local councils and local law enforcement/traffic control, and needs to be managed appropriately, as the South Korean police are finding out in the wake of Itaewon.
Now you don’t need to know specifically who is responsible, but it’s good to know that it’s always someone’s responsibility, just because it’s helpful to get in the mindset that you’re in an ‘event’ situation as soon as you find yourself in crowds of any type, gathered for a particular purpose, and that there should be people around you responsible for managing what’s happening regardless of where you are, “I’m not actually inside the official venue space yet” isn’t an excuse. You don’t need to be a complete expert in your local council bylaws or know what everyone is supposed to be doing, but when casually looking around you should expect to see enough people “running the show” to give you confidence that if an emergency suddenly happened, the right people would notice immediately. If crowds indoors or outdoors are thinly supervised, or not at all supervised, then that’s your biggest red flag.
Of course event management staff being present is one thing, but the other important question is – do the people running this shit look like they actually care? Lots of people in official uniforms looking important is great, but if it’s clear that they don’t give a single fuck about you, that’s definitely something to be concerned about. If they are kind of stern and look like they hate you a little, well you are k-pop fans so that’s a pretty normal reaction, it’s not such a red flag because at least it means that they’re probably paying attention to the crowd’s needs and finding catering to the horde to be somewhat annoying. It’s a sign that they’re doing actual work and it’s fine as long as they’re not doing anything super out of line like getting violent or massively inappropriate. The real red flag to watch for here isn’t disgust, it’s disinterest, it’s when venue staff just don’t seem to care at all. Friendly staff are ideal, annoyed staff are tolerable as long as they’re not abusing their power, the biggest warning sign is bored staff. There are degrees of course, as standing around doing nothing except watching other people have more fun than you for hours is innately boring and just part of the job of venue security, so a few yawns or whatever is fine, the thing to watch for is how they react to questions and concerns from attendees. If nobody’s asking them anything, why not do it yourself – go up to a staff member and ask them something basic and harmless that you’d like to know, that anyone working there should know straight off the top of their head, like where the toilets are, where the food is, or show them your ticket and ask where the entrance to your seating section is, just whatever basic shit about the event that you can think up. If you get a useful answer and they don’t just hand-wave you off, that’s great, they pass the test, this means that in an emergency situation your odds of survival are at least reasonable. If they can’t help, can they point you in the direction of someone who can? If they can’t answer your question but can refer you to someone/somewhere else, great – they still pass (as some staff might be assigned to just one area and told not to move, but should have also had some degree of job orientation or at least know where their boss is). If they can’t do either of these things, that’s a fail – so just note it, watch out and be careful. If some bad shit goes down, you’re probably going to be on your own.
For the record: big solo concert with one group’s reputation heavily riding on every aspect of the event? Usually these are pretty well managed, but not always, so expect it but don’t assume it. Shitty k-pop McFestival with multiple B-list artists, last-minute line-up changes, organisational hiccups and general shitfuckery? Expect the event management and security aspect to be just as lacking in care factor as everything else you’ve experienced in the lead-up to the event.
SO I HAVE FIRMLY ESTABLISHED THAT THE EVENT I’M AT IS MANAGED BY A CLOWN CIRCUS AND THAT IF ANY BAD SHIT GOES DOWN I’M PROBABLY GOING TO DIE, BUT I PAID FOR THIS NONSENSE AND I’M HERE, SO WHAT DO I DO NOW
Okay, venue staff are morons? Great, now that we know you can’t rely on them to wipe their own ass let alone look after your best interests, that’s important information, we can tick that off the list. Now, it’s time for you to orient yourself. Work out where you are going to be watching the event from, and locate your nearest emergency exits, plus where any other useful exits might be, find more than one. Don’t just locate them however, take a good look.
Take a look at this picture of a fire exit. I’ve taken this picture from this Twitter thread. It’s a good thread that was created with good intentions in the wake of the Itaewon crowd tragedy to help advise people how to best stay alive, and a lot of the information in it is very good and correct stuff which is also in this post, so I’ll give that thread a 8/10, why not go and read it after you read this because you’ll learn stuff there about CPR which this post doesn’t cover. The reason why that thread gets 8/10 instead of 10/10 is because of their fire escape advice. Nothing wrong with the text itself, but look at that fire escape. Do you notice anything in particular? Yes, it has a big fucking padlock and chain on the handle, so in an emergency evacuation, you can’t get out. Not only that, it’s also at the end of a small corridor. There’s no guarantee that this will be unlocked in an emergency, and in fact it probably won’t be. This isn’t an exit, it’s a death trap – if an emergency occurs, like a fire breaking out in the venue, right here at your fire escape is where the crowd crush will happen.
(I know what you’re thinking – once enough people push against the fire escape doors, won’t the chain break and the doors open anyway? Well, yes they might, if you’re lucky enough to have enough strong people to push with you, and guess what happens next? The doors open suddenly, it catches the people pushing by surprise, at least one of them falls over on the way out, the people crammed in behind push forward on top of the person who fell, some of them fall over too and now you have a “progressive crowd collapse” which is the other type of crowd crush, which then clogs up the exit yet again and a bunch of people still die, probably including you.)
Locked fire escapes at venues are really common, cheapskate venues both big and small do this a lot, usually to save on costs – they’re worried about people using the fire escape to sneak into the venue for free, and it’s cheaper to lock a fire escape with a chain and padlock than it is to hire someone to stand at every fire escape and make sure any exit and entry is authorised. Venue owners are often looking to cut costs and they know that the odds of a fire are low, so they often take gambles like this, and that’s why you hear so often about people dying in venues AT the fire escape – an emergency happens, people go to the fire escape, they can’t get out because it’s been locked by some fuckwit, so they go back the other way, but they can’t – the people behind them don’t know that it’s locked (or they do know but wishfully think they can ‘burst through’ which doesn’t work as mentioned above) so they’re all pushing forward. So people get sandwiched in the middle in a crowd crush, and die at an exit that was supposed to save their lives. It happens all the time. This practice was so common where I lived that the fire department did surprise spot checks on venues around town and issued out hefty fines for locked emergency exits until those venues learned their lesson. So my point here is – if your event is run by the clown circus, they probably did not get this part right. So check the fire exit. Is there a security person standing right there? Good, that’s how it should be, they have been posted there on fire escape duty, that’s all you need to know, go enjoy the show. If there isn’t anyone there, walk right up to the fire exit, try and see if you can physically open it a little (don’t actually go through it – you may not be let back in). Did you get told off by someone on the other side of the door immediately when you started poking around? Great, it means they’re paying attention. Is it an autolocked door that has signage indicating that it automatically opens during an emergency alarm (rare in all but the biggest/newest venues)? That’s fine too but personally I wouldn’t trust it until I see that it’s physically open, because it relies on the venue correctly maintaining the fire system – let one of those people who writes “first” in comments sections try that exit before you do, and make sure you plan another way you can also go. Is it locked with a regular key or padlocked with a chain? Plan a different route. Sure, it’s possible that someone might grow a clue and unlock it when an actual fire alarm goes off, in which case definitely use the exit if you can, but understand that this probably won’t happen and that the slacker venue staff will probably be too busy saving their own skin to worry about remembering something like that. Also make a note to report this to your local fire safety authorities, hopefully they are more conscientious than the venue staff and take their own jobs seriously enough to care.
Anyway by the time you’ve arrived in your favourite watching position, you should have your exit strategy in place, which is not just about where the exits are, but how to get to them quickly with a minimum of fuss, and also where else can you go if the exit you’re planning to go through is blocked or unusable for reasons. You should also assess your immediate watching environment, how likely is the movement of the crowd to get out of hand? Modern stadium or arena concerts with large standing spaces should have barrier systems in place at the front of the stage so you’re not directly up against the stage sidewall, and if you’re lucky you’ll even get more barriers that subdivide a large crowd into smaller sections, this helps to mitigate the “flow” effect, essentially breaking up one large liquid mass of people into smaller masses with smaller energy levels that are easier to manage. Those T-shaped gangways at the front of k-pop stages are partially effective for this, but extra barriers will help further.
Also if you want to be right at the front of the stage so you can catch oppar’s pearly sweat drops on your tongue, check the height and construction of the barrier you’ll be up against, there should be enough space between the barrier and the stage for a person to walk, and the barrier should be sturdy but no taller than the standard height barriers depicted here. The reason for this should be fairly obvious now that you’ve read all the above information on crowd crushes – these barriers cut off just below the chest, so in a crush situation most people’s lungs won’t be pressed right up against the barrier. They’re also low enough that if you’re very agile you can scale them, but in a crowd crush this may not be possible.
THE ART OF COMMUNICATION… OR NOT
Communication in an emergency at a live venue can save lives in a crowd crush – but it usually doesn’t, because in a situation where venue staff are careless enough about safety in general for a crowd crush incident to happen in the first place, they’re usually also pretty careless about having any decent communication channels with venue attendees happening. Staff at venues are mainly used to dealing with punters from the point of view of stopping them from trying to do shit they shouldn’t, like getting into the venue for free or carrying contraband items, so in an emergency situation your earnest “hey a bunch of people are dying over here can you please [do x y z]” will often be treated with suspicion and a “get back in the queue” type of response, instead of the swift action you were hoping for. Many people have died in crowd crushes at the front of stages simply because venue staff were told exactly what was going on, often in considerable detail, but didn’t take the threat as seriously as they should have. Don’t rely on getting word to any performers either, they’re often in such a sound and light bubble that they can’t even tell what is happening at all, and if the venue staff don’t clue them in on what’s happening, it really isn’t their fault, unless something very obvious happens like a barrier comes down, they’re likely to not even know anything’s wrong (remember that people screaming at them at concerts is normal). I’m not saying it isn’t worth a shot – you definitely should try it if you can because you might get lucky and to not alert people would be negligent, but just be prepared for disappointment.
So that leaves the crowd themselves. What’s the chance of stopping a crowd crush by trying to pass the word through the crowd about what’s going on? Very unlikely. Once again, it’s worth a shot and if nothing else you definitely shouldn’t be pretending that everything is fine, but it’s worth understanding some of the psychology around how sound moves through crowds.
In the above video we can hear people chanting Vivi’s name during Kim Lip’s speech, a fact which apparently upset Kim Lip and prompted her to leave the stage. Were people just being mean to Kim Lip? Well no, I mean it was just Vivi’s name they were chanting, if they really wanted to be mean to Kim Lip they probably would have started singing “Yum Yum“. Despite how it looks, the Vivi chants are happening with a delayed reaction, they start slowly and gradually build up as the chant travels and more people pick up on the fact that something is being chanted, and then repeat it. By the time Kim Lip started talking the Vivi chant already had crowd momentum, as Kim Lip talked more, they gradually realised they weren’t supposed to chant right then and it was kind of rude so they stopped, but this reaction also took time for the crowd to process because when a ton of people are chanting right next to you, it can be loud enough to compete with the performers talking through the microphone. So as you can see, just a simple two-syllable chant that everyone can agree on doesn’t transfer easily or well across an entire room full of people, so good luck with trying to transmit something more complex like “everyone please slowly move back a few steps the people at the front are being crushed and not in a fun way, I mean some of them are literally dying” in a way that the crowd can understand it. Even performers with microphones struggle with crowd control (as you can see with Loona and also in the NCT video above, where the boys realised what was happening when a barrier came down), you as an audience member will struggle a lot more. So while yes you should attempt communication if you can, don’t waste energy that you need for survival by beating a dead horse.
If you were able to save yourself and have some energy left, perhaps you’d like to try and save others. It’s an option you could consider, with the right training. I’m not going to write about CPR because this post is already long enough and I haven’t renewed my First Aid certification in a while, so I’ll leave this part of the post to someone with more up to date training, enjoy learning all about CPR with Wonho.
That’s all for this post, and remember that if you need more generic advice on attending k-pop concerts, there’s a post here which has more information on that. Stay safe and Kpopalypse will return!