The seed and dynamics of stampedes

Saturday 25th April, 2015 was the much-awaited Botswana Defence Force (BDF) Day. This is one of the few events in Botswana guaranteed to almost fill up the National Stadium…something even our most mouth-watering of football encounters do not seem able to accomplish nowadays. BDF Day is designed to dazzle: there is pomp and ceremony replete with colourful and elaborate parades, mock-battles, fighter jets streaking overhead, and even comedy—these are just some of the events one can look forward to. And entrance is, of course, free.

Given that there is little by way of free entertainment available in this country, it is no wonder that people, young and old, stream towards the National Stadium in droves on BDF Day looking for rare thrills. Last Saturday, only one thing threatened to mar things: a stampede that left several people injured and needing hospital care. The sight of people lying on the ground writhing in pain must have prompted some to conclude, in social media, that they eventually died. At the time of writing this article a BDF spokesman had moved quickly to quell Facebook and Twitter rumour that several people had died in a BDF Day stampede. We can, of course, be thankful if no-one died, but the danger of mass-deaths will remain lurking if we continue to do little to understand the causes and dynamics of stampedes.

Stampedes are preventable if enough knowledge and awareness about them is disseminated. And we in Botswana remain extremely vulnerable to this particular danger because of certain negative traits we generally exhibit, which traits we will describe in the course of this article. Let us first focus on the general causes of stampedes and how, in certain circumstances, they result in multiple deaths.

Panic is the common denominator in many stampedes of both humans and animals. This is a case in which an almost mindless instinct to preserve oneself—even if at the expense of others—takes over. And in many cases it takes just one person or animal to trigger this…sometimes for reasons that were not life-threatening at all. With cattle for example, and more especially at night, the trigger may be something as ostensibly mundane as a person lighting a match stick or jumping off a horse, a horse shaking itself, a lightning strike, and even a piece of tumbleweed bush being blown into the herd! (source: Wikipedia)  Humans, we should expect, ought to be a little wiser. But that, we will soon see, is not always the case.

On May 30, 1883 a woman tripped on the stairway of the newly-opened Brooklyn Bridge in New York leading to twelve deaths when startled people bolted, believing that the new bridge was faulty and about to collapse! On October 10, 1872, nineteen women and children died in Ostrów-Wielkopolski, Poland during the religious fast of Yom Kippur when the gas lighting failed and plunged the balcony in the women’s gallery in pitch darkness. The panicked women and children, perhaps afraid for their personal safety, rushed to and overcrowded the stairway causing it to collapse and resulting in the deaths. On December 24, 1913 in Calumet, Michigan, USA, 73 people were crushed to death in the “Italian Hall Disaster” when someone falsely announced “fire!” in the crowded theatre.

What experts note is that some of the biggest numbers of deaths due to stampedes are not caused by fear and panic away from something, but by the opposite: a single-minded desire to get to something attractive…ahead of others. This was indeed the case at BDF Day: people evidently feared they may not get a place and were anxious to get inside and find a seat, hence the genesis of something akin to a stampede. On May 18, 1896 in Khodynka, Russia in celebration of the coronation of Tsar Nicholas II, 1300 people were crushed to death trying to get free presents issued out on this day. In Victoria Hall in Sunderland, England, on June 16 1883, 180 children were killed when 1100 of them stampeded down the stairs in order to collect free gifts offered by the entertainers.
Although the examples I have given above are fairly old, it does not mean that deadly stampedes are no more. In the 1900s about 30 major stampedes occurred, and in our present 21st century nearly double those incidents occurred in rock concerts, cultural and religious festivals and football matches. In Africa, two notable tragedies due to stampedes occurred in recent times. On November 21, 2014, a total of 11 people died in a stampede in a stadium in Kwekwe, Zimbabwe. After a football game ended in Cairo, Egypt on February 8, 2015, 28 people died when a stampede erupted. People have been sentenced to death for the latter incident after blame was pinned on them for the tragedy.

A large stampede—especially of animals—will trample on everything in its path. But, with adult humans, most deaths are apparently not from being trampled on: the biggest danger is Compressive Asphyxia (sometimes called “crowd crush”). This is when the chest is pressed so tightly together that one cannot breathe. In the case of livestock, what American cowboys attempt to do is to turn the stampeding herd back into itself, so that it runs in circles rather than off a cliff or into a river, and before it endangers human life or property or other animals. Tactics used include firing a pistol to create sufficient noise that startles the leaders of the stampede and causes them to turn back into the herd behind them. But how are such stampedes avoided in the first place?

Cattle, it seems, are less likely to stampede after having eaten. This is when they are typically spread out in smaller groups to chew and digest their cud. Slow, almost mournful cowboy songs that are now an integral part of American country music evidently began in an effort to drastically reduce the risk of stampedes after night falls; when cattle become rather more tense and nervous. As in Botswana, American ranches can sometimes accommodate a thousand and more cattle in one place and this dramatically raises the possible amount of destruction a stampede can cause.

Regarding people, several measures have been identified to help minimise the risk of stampedes, and deaths through stampedes. The reason why casualties tend to be more in cases where people are attracted towards something than when escaping it is because those at the back tend to press anxiously forward, little aware that those in the front are being crushed – especially if a barrier of sorts has been erected at the entrance. Barriers, as such, though often a solution to maintain crowd control, can sometimes be the key cause of a stampede as they funnel people towards a smaller, restricted area that everyone wants to reach.

Since those at the back do not know, or have not paused to imagine, that they are crushing those in the front, feedback needs to be provided by police and/or organizers. It is advisable that they have a raised view of everyone by being on platforms, or vehicles, or horseback. This is where they can effectively survey the crowd and use loudspeakers to communicate to and direct the crowd.
If one is nevertheless caught in stampede, there are several techniques to avoid being crushed to death. When still an adolescent, my father taught me to fold my arms in front of me and hold them firm. It saved me at one point as the crowd, many of them bigger than me, pressed inside the National Stadium on the rumour that tickets were being sold out. I was literally lifted of my feet and only the posture my father taught me saved me from being crushed (I later returned the favour when I applied the life-saving Heimlich Lock on him as he was suffocating from a piece of meat lodged in his windpipe; I had just read about in Reader’s Digest).  An advisable thing to do, experts say, is to also try to move sideways, particularly between “swells” (when, as with a wave, there is a rhythmic thrust forward).

As regards stampedes in confined spaces like halls, a law—still in force as we speak—was passed in England following the Victoria Hall disaster of 1883. It requires all public entertainment venues to be equipped with doors that open outwards, and typically with “crash bar latches” that open when pushed from inside. Can you imagine trying to open doors that swing inwards (which, for different safety reasons, are the norm in residential buildings) and a crowd is crushing you against these very doors as they stampede to escape, for example, a fire?

Many stadiums are now required to have many exit points to avoid areas of extreme congestion when exiting the arena, and there are certain standards adopted for multi-storey buildings. But even these are of little use should a stampede occur. When the iconic Twin Towers of New York were struck and began to collapse in the famous 911 incident of 2001, many more lives would have been lost if the New Yorkers were not as orderly as they were in escaping the doomed building; if they had stampeded. And this is where we in Botswana must draw a vital lesson.

If there is one thing big-city life teaches a person, it is patience and restraint. Crowds are inevitable in the world’s biggest metropolises and from an early age one learns to wait for one’s turn in the metros, sidewalks, subways and countless queues. Here, in thinly-populated Botswana, an entrenched “me-first” attitude sees many “clever” people try to “outsmart” everyone else and jump queues. The tactics they use are many and varied, and these spill over to the way we double-park, don’t dim our lights when approaching other cars, and other thoughtless actions. We can thus be sure about one thing. The triumphant smirk they flash at you as they head for the exit door while you dutifully shuffle along the queue is dead-ready to transform into the panicked, “me-first” look you will see in their faces as they trigger or lead the next stampede…
L.M. Leteane is a Gaborone-based independent researcher, author and columnist