Astroworld analysis: Four big unanswered questions about the deadly Travis Scott concert

As officials and lawyers begin to comb through the evidence, serious questions have opened up about what role rap star Travis Scott and festival organiser Live Nation may have played in the catastrophe

Io Dodds
San Francisco
Tuesday 09 November 2021 15:06
Who is to blame for Astroworld tragedy?
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There are many things we still don’t know about the deadly Astroworld disaster, but the most important questions are taking shape.

Multiple lawsuits and investigations already under way, with Houston officials reviewing the festival’s security plan, checking permits and viewing CCTV footage.

Investigators will need to discover whether the show’s organiser Live Nation is in any way to blame for what happened – as well as what role headliner and founder Travis Scott played.

Houston fire chief Samuel Peña had said on Saturday that the scale of the crowd, and their injuries, "quickly overwhelmed" the private companies contracted by Live Nation to run security and medical services.

There are also questions for Houston’s police and emergency services, given mayor Sylvester Turner’s claim that the event had more security than the World Series baseball final earlier this month.

Live updates:Travis Scott to pay for funerals as victim’s father says son left off list of dead

Michele Arnold, a spokesperson for the Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office, said it could be “several weeks” before a cause of death is declared for the eight people so far who have died.

Here are the key issues at stake.

1. Why wasn’t the show stopped earlier?

There are many points when Travis Scott’s set at Astroworld could have stopped before he finished his last song at around 10:10pm.

Perhaps it could have stopped at 9:30pm, when off-duty intensive care nurse Madeline Eskins woke up in the admissions area after passing out in the crowd, and saw numerous other people collapsed and undergoing chest compressions.

Perhaps it could have stopped at 9:35pm, the time given by The Washington Post for the moment when two concertgoers, Seanna McCarty and Ayden Cruz, were captured on video climbing onto a camera platform and begging the operator to intervene.

Seanna Faith McCarty attempting to stop the show

Maybe it could have stopped at 9:38pm, when the Houston Fire Department declared a “mass casualty event”, or at 9:53pm, when video clips seen by KHOU-11 show people unconscious on the ground. But it did not stop, and Live Nation has a lot of questions to answer about why.

The camera operator who remonstrated with Ms McCarty appears to have had a walkie talkie on his belt and a headset on his ears; could he have used those to call in the problem? The staff giving aid to guests in the admissions area were probably in contact with colleagues; could they have made their superiors understand how serious things were?

Police chief Troy Finner has said that Astroworld was shut down as fast as it could have been, saying: “You cannot just close when you have 50,000 individuals that young. You can have rioting.”

Even so, would it have helped if Mr Scott had stopped his performance, or made an announcement, or if Live Nation had cut the lights and sound?

2. Were crowd control measures up to scratch?

What happened at Astroworld is known as a “human crush”, and such events are all too common: from the Hillsborough football stadium disaster of 1989, which killed 97 people, to the catastrophe that killed an estimated 2,400 pilgrims in Mecca in 2015.

These events tend to cause death and injury not through trampling or literal crushing to death but through asphyxiation, as people in the crowd are pressed in from all sides to the extent that they cannot breathe.

The size of the crowd, and the effects of the crush, make it hard to communicate that something is wrong, so parts of the crowd may continue to press in one direction without knowing the effect.

Experts say that this is a likely risk of large crowds unless specific mitigation measures are in place. The density of the crowd can be limited, with measures to force gaps or barriers to break it up into multiple smaller crowds. Such barriers can also ensure access and movement for event staff.

An estimated 2,411 people suffocated or were crushed to death in Mecca in 2015

G Keith Still, a professor of crowd science at the University of Suffolk, told the Associated Press that event organisers need strong crowd management systems to spot red flags early and report them up the chain.

Steve Allen, a UK crowd consultant who has personally stopped about 25 performances, including by Oasis, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Eminem, said events should have trained crowd spotters with noise-cancelling headphones who remain in direct communication with someone who has the power to stop the show.

So: did Live Nation have such systems in place? And if it did, what happened to them? Videos from earlier in the day showing fences and security gates being knocked over by crowds rushing to get in do not bode well for the answers.

3. How do supposed ‘drug attacks’ tie in?

In a press conference on Saturday, Chief Finner made a shocking suggestion: that a security officer at the concert may have been injected with drugs by an unknown person at the time of the surge.

He said: “One of the narratives [going around] was that some individual was injecting other people with drugs. We do have a report of a security officer, according to the medical staff that treated him last night, that he was reaching over to restrain or grab a citizen and he felt a prick in his neck.”

He said the officer was revived with Narcan, a nasal spray used to treat suspected opioid overdoses, and that medical staff “did notice a prick that was similar to what you would get if somebody was trying to inject”.

Nothing more has been heard since then, and it’s unclear whether anyone else had the same “prick”. Does the security guard’s report help explain the cause of the crush, or is it simply an unrelated red herring?

We have to be careful here, because given what we know about crowd disasters, no drug or narcotic assault is necessary to explain how they happen. Even so, many people on social media have seized on the idea that someone was going around injecting concertgoers, of which there is yet little evidence.

4. Were staff prepared for medical emergencies?

One of the more disturbing claims made by nurse Madeline Eskins is that Astroworld's medical staff were not properly trained or equipped to deal with casualties.

According to the Associated Press, Live Nation’s security contractor Contemporary Services Corp, based in Los Angeles, filed a 56-page operations plan with Harris County that did mention “the potential for multiple alcohol/drug related incidents, possible evacuation needs, and the ever-present threat of a mass casualty situation”.

What was the plan for Astroworld?

The plan says that staff should notify “Event Control” when someone is believed to have died using the code word “smurf”, and to “never use the term ‘dead’ or ‘deceased’ over the radio”.

But in a Facebook post after the event, Ms Eskins wrote: “I ask where the AMBU bag [a medical breathing aid] is, where the [defibrillator] is, where the stretcher and ambulance is, where the f*** any s*** is, and they said essentially there is none.

“There's one AMBU bag, one stretcher and one [defibrillator] for three – now four – people who are pulseless and blue. People from the crowd are trying to help. Teenagers are doing CPR but they're doing it incorrectly.

“Then I see there's other people doing CPR on people who still have a pulse, because nobody has done a pulse check. It was an absolute s*** show.”

In another post on Instagram, she said some of the medical staff had no experience with chest compressions and “did not know how to check a pulse, carotid [artery] or femoral [artery]”.

All of which raise big questions for Live Nation, Contemporary Services and any other company that was involved.

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