Planning process primed Houston’s Astroworld Festival for catastrophe, report finds

The festival’s written plans included procedures for many different emergencies, but not for a crowd-crush event.

By Michael MarksDecember 6, 2021 8:03 am,

Inadequate planning prevented promoters and public health authorities in Houston from responding quickly to the fatal crowd surge at the Astroworld Festival on Nov. 5.

A report by the Houston Chronicle revealed that the event’s preplanning documents did not address procedures for people being crushed by the crowd, even though similar events have happened in recent history.

Zach Despart, Harris County reporter for the Chronicle, spoke with Texas Standard about the paper’s findings. Listen to the interview in the audio player above or read the transcript below to learn more about what first responders witnessed on the night of the tragedy.

This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.

Texas Standard: One of the things that Astroworld promoters needed to put on the show was an event operations plan that would lay out how the festival would be organized, emergency procedures and all that. Have you had a chance to examine that document, and if so, what stood out?

Zach Despart: We have had a chance to look at that document. It’s a 56-page plan. The whole purpose of it is essentially to keep festivalgoers safe and have a smooth operation. We had sent it to a few experts who raised some red flags with it.

One of the big issues they had is the operations plan lists a ton of different types of emergencies you might encounter at a music festival and how to handle them; what it does not make any mention of is a crowd crush or a crowd compression. And there is a documented history of these type of events happening, especially at outdoor festivals where people are standing and there are limited barriers to keep them apart.

And yet, did local officials greenlight this after having reviewed the event operations plan? Did they not spot something missing here?

That’s a great question. The contract between Harris County and the festival requires the county to approve the operations plan, as well as staffing levels of security and medics and other staff for the festival. The county has not answered questions about what they approved.

Let’s talk about what actually happened the night of. How long were people actually being crushed in front of the stage before paramedics even realized there was a problem?

We know from reviewing the concert broadcast footage and speaking with people who were in the crowd at the time that the crowd crush appears to have happened within minutes of Travis Scott starting his show right about 9 p.m. on Nov. 5. The first call on the radio traffic for first responders that someone had a breathing or crushing-type injury happened about 15 minutes later, and then the show continued for about an hour after that point.

What became clear very quickly is that they were overwhelmed. As you know, it’s not uncommon to have some people who need some medical help at a music festival. We talked with the CEO of the medical company who was hired to run the show and he said he was there that night and that there was one call for cardiac arrest and there was a second one and there was the third one right in a row, and at that point he was like, oh man, we need help. This is about a half-hour into the concert.

The Houston Fire Department had set up a command post about a mile away from the festival stages. They didn’t have a primary role for the festival, but they wanted to be ready to respond if they needed to. They just happened to be listening to the radio traffic, and they decided, themselves, to self-dispatch to the festival because it sounded like things were getting out of hand. And it was at that time, at about 9:30 p.m., that the Houston Police Department, who was already on scene, said that they told the festival management that the show needed to end early and that the festival management agreed. But the show continued for almost 40 minutes past that point, and we just don’t know why would it take so long to take that action?

There have been a lot of proposed investigations into this tragedy. What’s the latest on that?

The Houston Police Department investigation is ongoing. I imagine there’ll be many others, especially because of all the civil lawsuits have been filed. One notable thing is Harris County had proposed doing an independent investigation, and a Harris County commissioner, who happened to be a former Houston police officer, blocked that independent investigation and said it was important to support the police department. So that’s unfortunately one avenue that we’re not going to explore.

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