What to Do if You Find Yourself in a Crowd Crush
While tragedies such as the deaths of 151 people at a Halloween event in Seoul are rare, anyone attending a big gathering should keep these safety tips in mind, experts say.
By Dani Blum
Nov. 1, 2022, 11:44 a.m. ET
A crowd surge during a Halloween celebration in Seoul that killed at least 151 people became the latest in a number of recent crowd-crush-related tragedies. November will mark the first 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 soccer match.
Despite these high-profile instances, such “episodes are very rare,” said Clifford Stott, a professor of social psychology at Keele University in England and expert in crowd behavior. “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.
Still, there are simple strategies that can help you stay safe in crowded settings, experts said. “It doesn’t matter how big you are, how strong you are,” said Paul Wertheimer, a crowd safety expert in Los Angeles. “If you get caught in a crush, everything is beyond your control.” Here’s what you need to know.
What to do before heading into a crowded event
Research the event — and make sure kids are prepared, too.
Most organized, 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 G. Keith Still, a visiting professor of crowd science at the University of Suffolk in England. Tell kids to find out where the exits are, and to stay alert for any potential dangers, like crowded aisles or stairways that are becoming jammed.
Pay attention to how the event is organized when you first walk in.
If the entrance to an event seems poorly organized — the security and ticket-checking process are confusing and tumultuous, for example — 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 hanging in the back.
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’re 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’s congestion — when you feel your personal space is being crowded, that’s a sign that maybe you should move to a different area and not wait for it to get worse,” said Gil Fried, a crowd management expert and 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 to do if a crowd crush occurs
Stand like a boxer.
You want to 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’re able to move.
If you drop something, don’t try to pick it up.
Even if your phone falls to the ground, don’t bend over and reach for it, Mr. Wertheimer said — you may not be able to get back up.
You want to 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.
If you fall, lie on your side.
You want to stay on your feet, but if you fall down, try to lie on your left side to protect your heart and lungs, Mr. Wertheimer said. If you’re on your stomach or back and people fall on top of you, there’s a risk that your chest could compress, he said.
Exit through the edge of the crowd.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises working your way diagonally to the edge of the crowd when there’s a lull in movement. And don’t 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 then to remain aware of your surroundings.
Dani Blum is an associate writer for Well at The Times.