Nine Dead At Pearl Jam Concert

Mosh pit tragedy at Denmark's Roskilde Festival

People gather at the site where nine people were crushed to death during a Pearl Jam concert at the at the annual Roskilde Music Festival.
AP Photo/Sif Meincke
August 17, 2000

On Friday, June 30th, at 10:15 P.M., Per Johansen reported for duty. A volunteer security guard at Denmark's Roskilde Festival, Johansen took up his assigned position in the narrow pit between the crowd barrier and the Orange Stage, the largest of the festival's seven performance areas, and looked out at the approximately 50,000 fans waiting to see Pearl Jam.

The size of the audience, Johansen says now, was "nothing special. It was really crowded. But not dangerous." Johansen, 37, had done security at Roskilde for the past ten years. "We'd had that [size] crowd before," he notes, "and there was no problem."

Within an hour, the area directly in front of Johansen had turned into a rock & roll hell. Eight young men, ages seventeen to twenty-six, suffocated to death in the mosh pit as Pearl Jam performed. A ninth man died in a hospital five days later. The Roskilde Festival – one of Europe's most popular summer concert events, held for the past twenty-nine years in the small farming community of Roskilde, twenty-five miles west of Copenhagen – had become the scene of one of the worst concert-related death tolls in rock history, just two short of the tragic stampede at the Who concert at Cincinnati's Riverfront Coliseum in December 1979.

Rock and Roll Tragedy: Why Eleven Died at The Who's Cincinnati Concert

Roskilde was cold and damp – it had rained earlier that evening – when Pearl Jam, one of nearly 200 international and Scandinavian acts playing during the festival's four days, hit the stage at 10:30 P.M., following a set by the Swedish band Kent. The English group Travis was playing at another stage; the dance band Underworld was about to go on at one of the festival's techno venues. At the Orange Stage, Johansen, standing about ten feet to his left of center stage, went to work, pulling kids to safety from the tidal crush of the mosh pit.

But as Pearl Jam continued to play, Johansen noticed that something was wrong. "There were some girls," he says, "and they were extremely difficult to pull up. Usually we have one guy to pull one up. But we needed two."

According to one eyewitness who was onstage, it was hard for anyone, including the band, to see what was happening in the pit, other than the usual exuberant tumult. But the centrifugal sway of the packed fans was knocking people off balance and down to the hardclay pavement underneath, where arms, legs and heads were getting caught in a lethal tangle. Christian Mueller, 28, was in the audience near Johansen's station, about fifteen feet from the stage. "I saw people start to fall," he says. "I could still see their head, but they were much lower than the rest of us. The guy in front of me could see the problems they had and said, 'Push the other way.' We did that three times, but it didn't help at all."

"It was tight even before the music started – people were stumbling left and right," says Tomas Miller, 19, who was also at the front of the crowd. "Half an hour in, I knew it was life and death. I couldn't lift my arms. It was difficult to breathe. I lifted my head to feel clean air. I was scared for my life."

The tight squeeze and oceanic surges proved too much for some members of the audience. Jannik Tai Mosholt, 22, a devoted Pearl Jam fan and a veteran of seven Roskilde festivals, was about ten rows from the front, on the right flank of the crowd. "There was too much pressure in there," he recalls. "It was like I was standing at a crossroads. People wanted to get to the front, and put their hands on each other's shoulders and squeezed through. It felt aggressive. I stayed five songs, and then I pushed my way out."

For some, there was no way out – or up from the ground. Eighteen-year-old Sara Kastrup told the Danish newspaper Politiken that she had friends close to the stage who were "standing on one of the poor people. They thought it was bags. When they saw it was a person lying on the ground, they couldn't get off."

Another woman, identified only as Charlotte, told Politiken that she saw five people standing on a man and that she tried to pull him up. "I went crazy," she said, "and yelled, 'Move, move, he's got to get up, he's got to get up.' But they didn't move, even though they must have sensed they were standing on him. I can't remember his face or anything, but I can remember that he was looking at me. Then it was over. I think he died."

At about 11:15 P.M., forty-five minutes into Pearl Jam's set, Per Johansen turned to his security chief in the pit and asked her to stop the music, telling her, "I think people are dead." Johansen claims he repeated his request twice and that another member of the pit crew said it a fourth time. Eventually, the message went up the security team's chain of command to the Orange Stage production office and finally to Dick Adams, Pearl Jam's tour manager, who was standing at the side of the stage. Pearl Jam were coming to the end of "Daughter" when Adams rushed onstage and talked to singer Eddie Vedder. Vedder stopped the music and addressed the audience:

"What will happen in the next five minutes has nothing to do with music. But it is important. Imagine that I am your friend and that you must step back so as not to hurt me. You all have friends up front. I will now count to three, and you will all take three steps back. All who agree say 'Yes' now." After a big cheer and a few seconds of movement by the crowd, Vedder asked everyone to step back again.

"You could really see when the crowd moved back," says Manfred Tari, a German correspondent for the U.S. concert-industry magazine Pollstar, who was in the audience. "It looked like they really moved a couple of [feet] back."

Roskilde promoter Leif Skor was in his office behind the Orange Stage when a festival crew member ran in and told him to come outside quickly. "I ran to the pit," Skov says, "and saw people already being pulled out by security. The accident happened about two meters [seven feet] from the front fence. I saw there was a hole [in the crowd] – where there were no heads."

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