How to Survive a Crowd Crush

We've all had that thought at a concert or festival: "What would I do if there's a panic?" "How do I survive?" We asked a professional crowd controller for their expert tips.

How to survive a crowd Photo © GettyImages/Girish Mitta

Festivals and concerts draw huge crowds, and are popular with travelers, giving them the motivation to visit a destination. But, sometimes a crowd becomes a crush or a stampede putting your life in danger. Paul Wertheimer, one of the world's leaders on crowd safety gives his expert insight into crowd control, crowd dynamics and staying safe.

Notable Events

In June 2017, a firecracker sparked panic in Turin's main square as 30,000 fans watched Juventus play a European Champions soccer match. The crush that followed caused over 1,500 injuries.

There were two crowd crush/stampedes in 2010 that claimed ~350 lives. Both happened at popular fun attractions where something went tragically wrong:

Water Festival, Cambodia, November 2010 – 345 dead over 300 injured.

Love Parade, Germany, July 2010 – 21 dead, 500 injured.

These tragedies have a few elements in common: both events had a narrow, single point of entry and exit; in Germany, it was a tunnel, in Cambodia, a bridge. Both events had crowds of over a million.

Crowd Crush vs Stampede

There are differences between a crush and a stampede.

Paul insists what happened in Germany was not a stampede. "A stampede is when people or animals are fleeing a perceived danger. They're running from something that scares them. This was a crowd craze… a movement of people towards something of perceived value. Like getting into the place."

The critical error with Love Parade was underestimating the crowd size. Organizers had planned for 250,000 participants, but 1.4 million turned up, leaving security, medical services, and infrastructure woefully inadequate.

"There's always this perception that if people had just acted rationally they wouldn't have been crushed to death. Panic didn't cause this, the failure to manage this event caused this," said Paul.

Initial reports from Phnom Penh indicate this tragedy was a genuine stampede. The annual Water Festival marks the end of the rainy season. A million people had come to the capital for the festivities. Most were on an island in the Mekong River when something spooked them.

Some say a large group fainted in the crowd crush. Other reports say electrocution sparked the panic. Whatever the cause, suddenly a massive crowd attempted to cross one small suspension bridge.

Survival Tips to Stay Safe

Whether it's a stampede or a crush, here are some tips for increasing your chances of survival:

Paul advises you should take a moment to make a mental note of all the exits in a venue as soon as you arrive. The natural urge is to use the same entry when you exit, not because it's safer, but it's familiar. He also adds there may be an alternative exit being used by fewer people that will get you out more quickly, very handy if you already know where it is.

"When you start to feel uncomfortable in a crowd, this is the time to start looking at leaving. This is very difficult because, if you've traveled a long distance, or you've waited for a long time, for example in front of a stage, you don't want to leave."

Many people leave that decision until it's too late, and find they are trapped in a large, swaying and shuffling crowd. Paul says, in his experience, crowds tend NOT to panic, they tend to be heroic and compassionate.

Here are Paul's survival tips:

  • Stay on your feet
  • Conserve energy – don't push against the crowd and don't yell or scream
  • Use sign language to communicate with those around you (point, wave, even use your eyes)
  • Keep your hands up by your chest, like a boxer – it gives you movement and protects your chest
  • If you're in danger, ask people to crowd surf you out
  • If someone extends their hand for help, grab hold to keep them up. 

How to Escape a Stampede

Paul has developed a technique for working your way out of a crush, he calls it the accordion method:

"After you're pushed forward, like in a wave, there's a lull. That lull is your chance to move, and the way you move is on a diagonal, between pockets of people. There's always space between people. A couple of steps sideways, another wave surge, then another couple of steps in the next lull. You work your way out that way till you get to the periphery."

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5 Comments

  • Faheem Safdar said

    I had been in a sit-in for a month long protest against Government. The crowd grew to almost 2 hundred thousands of people. One day, the state police and paramilitary started firing rubber bullets and tear gas. The people get panicked and started to run; creating a massive push against the people behind. I was almost in the middle of that huge crowd.
    What i felt, was a powerful wave taking my feet above the ground. I tried to get down in order to make my feet firm at ground but i could not even touch it. Then after a few seconds, that wave push faded for a while and i got my feet back to the ground. Then i tried to push the man in front me because the guy behind my has almost pierced his elbow into my spine. But my effort was in vain. I realized the crowed is not going to disperse soon and because the sit-in venue was a broad road having buildings at its both sides. I stopped pushing and exerting force and started to take deep breaths, repeating a phrase "don't panic please its going to be ok". I just kept repeating it. I must say the screams of people were more scary than the mechanical force i had experienced there. Luckily, there was a playground nearby when the front of the crowed filled it, pressure reduced

    Reply

  • Debra wallingford said

    I too found myself being crushed. This at a Mark Anthony concert in Medellin, Columbia. It was sudden and being in the middle of a single exit, unavoidable. The pressure of the crowd grew quickly. People started to panic and I saw in the eyes of one young girl the overwhelming sense of fear. I remember saying to her in English "I dont want to die , i don't want to die" and intuitively switched directions to the way I came. I saw the small faces of my friends two children and grab the daughter's arm. "Turn back, turn back...this is how people die!". She grabbed her brothers hand and slowly, zig zagging through the rising panic of the crowd. Through people punching one another in protest of the pushing and yelling. In a normal tone, in English, though not the language, repeated my mantra"its alright, everyone's going to be fine, its alright". When we made it to a widened area we didn't stop till we found our seats. The concert was a wash after that:) Adreline kicked out and sleep wanted to take over....people in our group didn't believe something like this did or could happen. Hopefully, they never have to experience it.. I'll never put myself in a situation like this ever again, even as an avid concert goer. Yes, Stay calm, protect your chest and move diagonally....

    Reply

  • Ron Ablang said

    Wow! Thank you for sharing. Having kids keeps me grounded from doing "fun" things like going to crowded venues.

    Reply

  • Jenny Lou said

    Awful aye?
    There should be a LAW in EVERY COUNTRY against more than 2000 @ a CONCERT & 1 Security Guard for 5 people too.
    Also if you don't like crowds don't go. I don't like places I just make an excuse, sorry I have the spew bug.

    Reply

  • Eric Saferstein said

    Any interest in this subject? Check this site. agsaf.org (Artificially Generated Stampede Awareness Foundation)

    Reply

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