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
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.
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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.

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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."

At the bottom of that human hole, about seven feet in diameter, was a pile of bodies. Johansen and other security personnel leaped into the crowd and started passing victims over the barrier and into the pit, where they were carried backstage for emergency treatment. The number of victims quickly overwhelmed the Orange Stage's regular medical station. Wob Roberts, a British production manager for one of the other bands on the Orange Stage bill, took charge of moving trucks on the loading dock to facilitate the passage of injured to another area.

It is unclear how much time passed between Johansen's first warning to his security chief and when Vedder stopped the music. In the days immediately following the incident, Johansen told the Danish media –and reiterated to Rolling Stone in a phone interview – that it was a full fifteen minutes. Skov insists it was much less. "He's right that [the message] has to travel to various people," Skov says of Johansen. "But he's not right about the time it takes. We are not using telephones. We're not running around with messages. We are using walkie-talkies."

In either case, Vedder got the message too late. A twenty-six-year-old police cadet from Hamburg, Germany; a twenty-three-year-old man from Holland; three Swedes and three Danes all died of asphyxiation at the scene. A ninth man, from Australia, hospitalized with chest injuries and attached to an artificial respirator, died on July 5th. Bendt Rungstroem, vice chief of police in Roskilde, confirmed that another three people were treated at a local hospital and twenty-five others received minor injuries.

Danish authorities did not release the names of the dead. "It's the law in Denmark," Rungstroem says, "to protect the families." But Rolling Stone has learned the identities of four of the victims. The Swedes were Carl-Johan Gustafsson, 20; Fredrik Turesson, 22; and Henrik Bondebjer, 22. The man who died on July 5th was identified by an Australian news agency as Anthony James Hurley, 24, of Melbourne.

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At 1:05 A.M. on Saturday, July 1st, a Roskilde staff member told the dazed, distraught crowd at the Orange Stage that the last scheduled band of the night, the Cure, would not be playing. (Music at the festival's other stages continued. Acts were slotted to go on as late as 3 A.M.) Shortly thereafter, Pearl Jam issued a statement:

"This is so painful . . . . I think we are waiting for someone to wake us and say it was just a horrible nightmare . . . . And there are absolutely no words to express our anguish in regard to the parents and loved ones of these precious lives that were lost. We have not yet been told what actually occurred, but it seemed random and sickeningly quick . . . it doesn't make sense. When you agree to play a festival of this size and reputation, it is impossible to imagine such a heart-wrenching scenario. Our lives will never be the same, but we know that is nothing compared to the grief of the families and friends of those involved. It is so tragic . . . there are no words.

"Devastated, Pearl Jam."

The statement was reportedly written by Vedder in the early morning hours after the tragedy, as he, guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready, bassist Jeff Ament and drummer Matt Cameron sat in contemplative shock in their Copenhagen hotel. The group canceled its next two concerts, the last dates on what had otherwise been a successful six-week European tour – a July 2nd festival date in Belgium and a July 3rd arena show in Rotterdam, Holland. Pearl Jam are still scheduled to begin a U.S. tour of arenas and amphitheaters on August 3rd.

Later on July 1st, Who guitarist Pete Townshend called Vedder to console the distraught singer. In a subsequent posting on his Web site, Townshend said, "I passed on what I knew the Who had done wrong after the Cincinnati disaster – in a nutshell, I think we left too soon, and I spoke too angrily to the press and without proper consideration of the fact that the people who deserved respect were the dead and their families . . . .

"If you have a faith, please pray for the victims and their families, and for everyone who was involved. It was a horrific experience for them."

Pearl Jam and their management declined to officially comment on the Roskilde incident for this story, and the members of the group are said to be in seclusion, searching for answers and sense in the terrible events of June 30th. Eyewitnesses that night say that as Vedder sat on the stage, gazing into that deadly hole of bodies, his face appeared on a huge video screen located behind the mixing-desk tower. He was crying.

As Rolling Stone went to press, Danish authorities continued their investigation into the cause of the crush at the Orange Stage, the nine resultant deaths and the disputed response time by Roskilde personnel. "I don't think we will find the whole truth," Rungstroem admits. "We haven't declared it an accident, but we think it was." Rungstroem said he expected to make a report to the Danish justice minister by July 14th, but chief superintendent Mogens Sorenson of the Roskilde police told a British newspaper that it would take several months to complete a final report on the deaths. Sorenson also said it was unlikely that criminal charges would be filed.

Based on interviews conducted by Rolling Stone and accounts published in the Danish media, it appears there was no single concerted rush by fans to the stage when Pearl Jam came on, or at any time during the aborted set. But numerous reports from people on-site indicate there were sound problems at the delay towers to the rear of the crowd, which may have incited people to press forward to hear better. Jannik Tai Mosholt says that the sound, even up front, was "all treble and too quiet. It sounded so wrong."

Rainy weather and muddy conditions at Roskilde were cited in initial interviews and press reports as contributing factors. The site of the Roskilde Festival is, in fact, farmland. The perimeter is dotted with cattle sheds, and the location is often used for agricultural events. A cold drizzle had turned at least part of the Roskilde turf into mud on Friday. Some ticket-holders made their way between the festival's seven stages with plastic bags wrapped around their feet, because a concession stand on the grounds had run out of gumboots.

But there was no mud at the foot of the Orange Stage. The ground immediately in front of the stage is paved with "stone flour," a mix of clay and sand that drains water quickly. Roskilde organizers deny that the area was slippery that night.

The Orange Stage field is also dotted with metal barriers – long, upside-down-U-shaped poles – to prevent huge surges in the audience. The barriers were once a staple at British soccer stadiums but were banned in the late 1980s after it was found that they were responsible for rib injuries and caused people to fall if the metal became greasy with condensation. Paul Wertheimer, the head of Chicago-based Crowd Management Strategies, a leading concert-safety consulting firm, says the Roskilde barrier might have worked effectively with a smaller audience. But he adds that during the Pearl Jam catastrophe, "they certainly weren't helpful. They probably complicated matters when the chain reaction went into play."

Until the mosh-pit deaths of June 30th, Roskilde had a reputation as one of the best, and safest, rock & roll events on the European summer-festival calendar. Founded in 1971 as Sound Festival, an imitation Woodstock with one stage, twenty bands and a modest 20,000 people over two days, Roskilde – as it came to be formally named, after its host town – began as a haphazardly managed showcase for Scandinavian progressive-rock acts like Gasolin and Burton' Red Ivanhoe, with the bills including top English attractions such as the Kinks and Procol Harum.

But along with Britain's Reading and Glastonbury festivals and Holland's Pinkpop, Roskilde evolved in the Eighties and Nineties into one of Europe's premier rock & roll weekends, bulging with world-class headliners. Neil Young, Bob Dylan, R.E.M. and David Bowie have all played at Roskilde in recent years. One-third of Roskilde's total budget for 2000 – $7.5 million – was spent on booking 175 acts for the four-day festival.

"In the Seventies, [outdoor] festivals died out in the United States because they were horrendously run," says Wertheimer. "We still have that legacy, through Woodstock '99. In Europe, they were never perfect but always managed better. It is a different kind of society and culture. There is a different properness."

All profits from the Roskilde Festival are distributed by the Roskilde Charity Society (the actual Danish name is Foreningen Roskildefonden) to organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as several Danish charities. The Scandinavian penchant for civic order is also reflected in the wide-open character of the festival's perimeter: There are no barbed-wire fences to foil gate-crashers, only trees.

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"That's part of our security – it keeps people positive and controlled," says Leif Skov, 53. He was not one of the festival's original founders but has co-managed the event for many of its twenty-nine years with Henrik Rasmussen and Henrik Nielsen. "We don't carry weapons," Skov continues during a lengthy interview on the Roskilde grounds a week after the fatal crush. "We carry a smile."

Aside from twelve full-time employees, Roskilde's staff consists of unpaid local volunteers like Per Johansen, who runs an auto-repair business outside of Copenhagen. This year, 17,000 volunteers worked at the festival. When asked if his volunteers were ill-equipped to cope with the Pearl Jam crisis as it unfolded, Skov responds, "What proper education is there for security? In Denmark, there isn't any. Their 'education' is experience. And preparation."

Indeed, when Wob Roberts, who has been to Roskilde with various touring bands for more than ten years, arrived at the Orange Stage on that Friday morning to load equipment, he surveyed the grounds with admiration. "My initial thought," he says, "was 'Fuck me, these people have really thought about this. This site looks great."

Roskilde has no reported history of security-related fatalities, but it has not been trouble-free. Ironically, Eddie Vedder was at the center of a fracas when Pearl Jam played at the festival in 1992. When he saw a stage diver getting roughed up by security in the pit, Vedder jumped down and got into a violent scuffle with members of the pit crew, who reportedly did not recognize the singer and actually punched him.

"It was very crowded," Skov says of the Orange Stage audience for Pearl Jam's June 30th show. "But it has been crowded for years." Skov says he reduced the number of weekend tickets that he put on sale this year, from 90,000 two years ago to 70,000. (The tickets sold out a week in advance.) Skov also estimates that between 45,000 and 50,000 people were at the Orange Stage to see Pearl Jam – almost three-quarters of all the ticket holders for the entire festival. In other words, nearly everyone at Roskilde that night squeezed into that field to see Pearl Jam.

"The common problem," Wertheimer says of tragedies like Roskilde, "is crowds too large to be managed." Wertheimer, a former public-information officer in Cincinnati who headed the local task force that investigated the 1979 Who disaster, adds that one reason he believes the Roskilde audience was too big is "because nobody can tell you exactly how many people were there. How can you have the right staff, how can you communicate properly, how can emergency people respond properly when they don't know who's there?"

Thomas Borberg, a twenty-nine-year-old photographer for Politiken, was in the security pit that night when Pearl Jam began to play. He distinctly remembers the mood of the audience. "I'm not a Pearl Jam fan," he says, "but I saw no laughing in that crowd. There was no joy on their faces. You could see people were not happy."

Borberg left the show before the deadly crush but returned when he heard what happened. "I saw a police officer," he says, "shouting to people –so small and alone. He was trying to get people to move back. Shouting at a huge crowd. It illustrates how hopeless it all was. There was nothing anybody could do."

At 5 P.M. on July 1st, the bishop of Roskilde, Jan Lindhardt, walked onstage, prayed briefly to the assembled crowd and called for a moment of silence for the dead. The Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour then took the stage, and the music started again at the Orange Stage. Candles and flowers had been placed in an impromptu memorial nearby. Roses and letters to the victims were inserted in the barbed wire lining the security barrier near where they had fallen. Earlier in the day, Skov had given a press conference in which he declared that the festival would continue. "Life is stronger than death," he said.

Two of the bands on the Saturday bill did not agree. Oasis and the Pet Shop Boys both canceled their appearances in the aftermath of Friday's calamity.

Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys was in his Copenhagen hotel room on Saturday morning when band mate Chris Lowe phoned him with news of the tragedy, which Lowe had just seen on television. Tennant then spoke to the Pet Shop Boys' tour manager, James Monkman, and said he couldn't imagine going onstage that night. "This show that we're doing," Tennant says, "is a greatest hits show. It's like a party. Everybody jumps up and down and sings 'Go West.' To do that on a site where eight people had just died seemed inconceivable."

Tennant notes that he talked with Oasis' manager, Marcus Russell, who handles Tennant's side project, Electronic. According to Tennant, Russell had already spoken to Oasis vocalist Liam Gallagher, who reportedly asked how he could be expected to go onstage and sing "Live Forever" under those circumstances. Russell issued a statement on behalf of Oasis and the Pet Shop Boys urging Roskilde organizers to cancel the mainstage activities on Saturday, both to facilitate the investigation and out of respect for the dead and their families.

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That afternoon, at Roskilde, representatives of both acts, including Monkman, met with Skov and a Roskilde police official, who said the investigation into the deaths was under way, the previous night's security arrangements had been double-checked and OK'd, and the day's shows could go on as planned. Monkman claims Skor also said that both bands should respect Roskilde's long tradition of safety.

"Well," Monkman replied, "you don't have that anymore, as of twenty-four hours ago."

At the end of the meeting, Monkman and the other Oasis and Pet Shop Boys representatives signed a letter stating their withdrawal from the show because of what they felt to be continued safety risks to the audience at the Orange Stage. "If one person had hurt themselves," Monkman says, "and you were seen to have gone on, knowing what we knew, I felt that would be a serious position."

After Oasis and the Pet Shop Boys canceled, Roskilde issued a press release denouncing both groups: "The Roskilde management are of the opinion that the bands that decide to follow through with their concerts on the existing and approved conditions show both respect and consideration to the dead, their families and the audience."

Skov now admits that "some words were said that should not have been said," adding that Oasis and the Pet Shop Boys "talked of respect for the dead. We did not agree on what 'respect' was. I fully understand the Pet Shop Boys and Oasis not playing." Skov says that on July 7th he sent a letter to both bands, "regretting what had happened." In the letter, he also brought up the issue of the band's performance fees, which he told Rolling Stone he wants to put into a Roskilde 2000 Tragedy Fund for the study of safety and security: "We will see." (In a July 5th interview, Tennant said he had only heard through the press that Skor intended to withhold the Pet Shop Boys' fee and put it into a trust fund for the families of the deceased. "There was no communication between him and our agent on that," he said.)

Throughout the rest of the Roskilde weekend, fans and musicians mourned in different ways. On Sunday, July 2nd, a memorial service was held at a local cathedral, attended by about 1,200 people, many of them festival attendees who showed up in jeans and shoes covered with mud from the festival grounds. That night, the Danish band DA-D lit eight torches onstage for the then-known dead and passed them out to the crowd.

And a week later, Christian Mueller was still wearing his black Roskilde wristband – his ticket to what was supposed to be four days of rock & roll heaven. "It doesn't seem right to take it off," he said. "Not yet."

This story is from the August 17th, 2000 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 847: August 17, 2000