LOS ANGELES – A crowd surge during a Halloween celebration in Seoul that killed at least 150 people has become the latest in a number of recent crowd-crush-related tragedies.
November will mark the one-year anniversary of the Astroworld festival in Houston, when 10 people died and hundreds were injured at a Travis Scott concert; earlier this month, more than 100 people died in a stampede at an Indonesian football match.
Despite these high-profile instances, such “episodes are very rare”, said crowd behaviour expert Clifford Stott, a professor of social psychology at Keele University in England.
“The extent to which people are going to find themselves in the circumstances where this kind of event could develop is extremely low,” he added.
Mr Paul Wertheimer, a crowd safety expert based in Los Angeles, said: “It does not matter how big you are, how strong you are. If you get caught in a crush, everything is beyond your control.”
Still, there are simple strategies that can help you stay safe in crowded settings, experts said.
Here is what you need to know.
What do I do before heading to a crowded event?
1. Research the event and make sure kids are prepared too
Most organised, ticketed events will have a crowd safety plan in place, so those might be a safer option. Looser, open street celebrations usually have fewer precautions. Standing-room-only events, and those without assigned seating, tend to be the most dangerous, Mr Wertheimer said.
Parents should be aware of what type of event their child is going to as well, said Dr G. Keith Still, a visiting professor of crowd science at the University of Suffolk in England. Tell children to find out where the exits are and to stay alert for any potential dangers, like crowded aisles or stairways that are becoming jammed.
2. Pay attention to how the event is organised when you first walk in
If the entrance to an event seems poorly organised, for example, the security and ticket-checking process are confusing and tumultuous, the rest of the event may be poorly set up for handling a crowd, Dr Still said. “If that looks chaotic, I would be trying to avoid high-density crowds from that point onward,” he said.
If the event is general admission, without assigned seats, you might want to find the least crowded pocket, he said, even if that means staying in the back.
3. Know where the exits are throughout the venue
You should be aware of the closest exit to where you are seated or standing, Mr Wertheimer said, and as you move throughout the venue, check out the exits near the concession stand or bathroom, as a crowd surge can happen unexpectedly anywhere.
Your head “should be on a swivel”, scanning your surroundings for signs that a crowd is becoming too congested or that an exit is out of reach, said Dr George Chiampas, director of Northwestern Medicine’s Disaster Management and Community Emergency Preparedness Initiative.
How do I know if things are getting dangerous?
Watch out for warning signs that a crowd is becoming dangerously dense. If you are getting pushed against those around you, that might be a sign that the event is becoming unsafe, Mr Wertheimer said. You should also look around and see if there are any crowd safety managers or security personnel monitoring the situation. If none are around, that may also indicate that the situation is unsafe.
“When you feel there is congestion; when you feel your personal space is being crowded, that is a sign that maybe you should move to a different area and not wait for it to get worse,” said crowd management expert Gil Fried, a professor at the University of West Florida. For instance, as fun as it is to watch a concert near the front of the stage, the back is likely to be less crowded and safer.
What if a crowd crush occurs?
1. Stand like a boxer
Keep your arms in front of your chest to create more space between you and the person in front of you, Mr Wertheimer said. Stand like a boxer, with one foot in front of the other so that you are more steady and can better absorb pressure from people pushing against you, he advised. You also want to keep your knees flexible, so that your body is not rigid and you are able to move.
2. If you drop something, don’t try to pick it up
Even if your phone falls to the ground, do not bend over and reach for it, Mr Wertheimer said. You may not be able to get back up.
3. Don’t scream
Save your oxygen, and yelling, even for help, is likely futile in a big crowd, Mr Wertheimer said. And since air in a crowd crush tends to be hot and muggy, lift your head up for more access to fresh air.
4. If you fall, lie on your side
Stay on your feet, but if you fall down, try to lie on your left side to protect your heart and lungs. If you are on your stomach or back and people fall on top of you, there is a risk that your chest could compress, Mr Wertheimer said.
5. Exit through the edge of the crowd
The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention advises working your way diagonally to the edge of the crowd when there is a lull in movement. And do not resist the force of the crowd, the agency advised.
While crowd surges are rare, a seemingly safe situation can rapidly transition into an unsafe one. The best strategy is to walk into an event with a plan for the worst-case scenario, the experts said, and to remain aware of your surroundings. NYTIMES