Mourning in Houston as concert investigation begins

Juan A. Lozano
The Associated Press

HOUSTON — Investigators Sunday worked to determine how eight people died in a crush of fans at a Houston music festival, as families mourned the dead and concertgoers recounted the horror and confusion of being trapped in the crowd.

Authorities planned to use videos, witness interviews and a review of concert procedures to figure out what went wrong Friday night during a performance by rapper Travis Scott. The tragedy unfolded when the crowd rushed the stage, squeezing people so tightly they couldn’t breathe.

Billy Nasser, 24, who had traveled from Indianapolis to attend the concert, said about 15 minutes into Scott’s set, things got “really crazy” and people began crushing one another. He said he “was picking people up and trying to drag them out.”

Nasser said he found a concertgoer on the ground.

“I picked him up. People were stepping on him. People were like stomping, and I picked his head up and I looked at his eyes, and his eyes were just white, rolled back to the back of his head,” he said.

Memorial: Over the weekend, a makeshift memorial of flowers, votive candles, condolence notes and T-shirts, including a Scott shirt, took shape outside at NRG Park.

Michael Suarez, 26, came to the growing memorial after attending the concert.

“It’s very devastating. No one wants to see or hear people dying at a festival,” Suarez said. “We were here to have a good time — a great time — and it’s devastating to hear someone lost their lives.”

The dead, according to friends and family members, included a 14-year-old high school student; a 16-year-old girl who loved dancing; and a 21-year-old engineering student at the University of Dayton. The youngest was 14, the oldest 27.

Houston officials did not immediately release the victims’ names or the cause of death.

Thirteen people remained hospitalized Sunday. Their conditions were not disclosed. Over 300 people were treated at a field hospital at the concert.

Investigation: City officials said they were in the early stages of investigating what caused the pandemonium at the sold-out Astroworld festival, an event founded by Scott. About 50,000 people were there.

Authorities said that among other things, they will look at how the area around the stage was designed.

Julio Patino, of Naperville, Illinois, who was in London on business when he got a middle-of-the-night call informing him his 21-year-old son Franco was dead, said he had a lot of questions about what happened.

“These concerts should be controlled,” Patino said. “If they don’t know how to do that, they should have canceled the concert right then, when they noticed there was an overcrowd.” He added: “They should not wait until they see people laying down on the floor, lifeless.”

Steven Adelman, vice president of the industry group Event Safety Alliance, which was formed after the collapse of a stage at the Indiana State Fair in 2011 killed seven people, helped write industry guidelines widely used today.

He said investigators will examine the design of the safety barriers and whether they correctly directed crowds or contributed to the crush of spectators. He said, too, that authorities will look at whether something incited the crowd besides Scott taking the stage.

Security staffing: Adelman said another question is whether there were enough security staffers there, noting there is a nationwide shortage of people willing to take low-wage, part-time security gigs.

“Security obviously was unable to stop people. Optically, that’s really bad-looking,” he said. “But as for what it tells us, it’s too early to say.”

Contemporary Services Corp., headquartered in Los Angeles, was responsible for security staff at the festival, according to county records in Texas. Representatives for the company — which advertises online as being “recognized worldwide as the pioneer, expert and only employee owned company in the crowd management field” — did not immediately respond to emails and phone messages seeking comment.

Houston police and fire department officials said their investigation will include reviewing video taken by concert promoter Live Nation, as well as dozens of clips from people at the show.

Officials also planned to review the event’s security plan and various permits issued to organizers to see whether they were properly followed during the event. In addition, investigators planned to speak with Live Nation representatives, Scott and people who were at the concert.

The crowd: Izabella Ramirez of Texas City was celebrating her 21st birthday and said that once Scott came on stage, no one could move.

“Everybody was squishing in and people were trying to move themselves to the front. You couldn’t even lift up your arms,” Ramirez said.

Ramirez said a security guard pulled her over the barricade, while her date, Jason Rodriguez, lifted her.

“Everyone was yelling for different things. They were either yelling for Travis or they were yelling for help,” Rodriguez said.

On video posted to social media, Scott could be seen stopping the concert at one point and asking for aid for someone in the audience: “Security, somebody help real quick.”

In a tweet posted Saturday, Scott said he was “absolutely devastated by what took place.” He pledged to work “together with the Houston community to heal and support the families in need.”

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Associated Press writers Jake Bleiberg in Dallas; Randall Chase in Dover, Delaware; and Kristin M. Hall in Nashville contributed to this report.

Witness account

The concertgoers at a highly anticipated Houston music festival Friday night say they were shocked to witness how the event brewed into pandemonium that left at least eight people dead.

Rapper Travis Scott was the headliner for the sold-out Astroworld Festival in NRG Park, which was attended by an estimated 50,000 people.

Here, a couple describes the chaos:

Ariel Little of New York was in the middle of the crowd in a prime viewing spot with her husband for only a brief minute before she started to struggle.

It was in trying to escape the increasingly packed venue that the couple realized how dangerous it was becoming.

Little’s voice quivered with emotion as she described how small she felt gasping for air as she was battered by the crowd.

“My chest is in so much pain from people pushing and crushing – literally crushing – my chest and in my lungs. And all I can remember is just screaming for him. ‘I gotta get out! I gotta get out!’ And people weren’t moving,” Little said. “They thought it was a joke but it was like literally people dying.”

Her husband, Shawn, surveyed the scene quickly to find a way out.

“There was a lot of people in my section that were kind of like screaming and having panic attacks just because it felt almost as if you were under an elevator and the elevator was coming down on you and there was nothing you could do about it,” Shawn Little said. “No one in my section at the time was moving because I think everyone was just in shock of how crazy and how panicked that everyone was. There was a lot of fear in people’s eyes.”