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

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On the night of December 3rd, 1979, as Richard Klopp was caught up in the horror on the plaza and saw his wife swept away from him in the crush, it didn't immediately occur to him that what he had forecast was suddenly happening to him. He was just trying to survive. Klopp is six feet two and weighs over 200 pounds, but he went down; the pressure from those behind him toppled him. He was flat on his face on the concrete, and those marching, charging feet were all around him. It was no great comfort that city councilman Jerry Springer had actually replied sympathetically to his letter – no one else did, and Springer never actually was able to get anything done. What Klopp felt, oddly, as he wondered whether he would live or die, was anger at Cincinnati's establishment, at the forces that made him get a general-admission ticket when he wanted a reserved seat, at whoever it was that wouldn't open those doors to relieve the crowd pressure. He seldom went to rock concerts anymore, but he had really wanted to see the Who and had gone to Ticketron an hour early. All tickets had been sold by the time he got to the window; he saw scalpers buying a hundred tickets each. Klopp ended up paying sixty dollars for tickets for himself and his wife.

He had gotten to the plaza at 2:40 the afternoon of December 3rd because he wanted to be sure they got good seats; he had brought a book with him to read. That book, Structuralist Poetics by Jonathan Culler, was still in his right hand as he lay on the concrete. Someone, miraculously, helped him to his feet and he was back in the crush, his arms pinned to his sides. At one point he was within five feet of a closed door, but he had no control over his movement. At times his feet were off the ground. Despite the cold, he was drenched in sweat. He couldn't breathe. He and everyone around him had their heads tilted straight back, their noses up to try to get some air. He noticed that an actual steam, a vapor, was rising off the crowd in the moonlight. He would later be angered to read that it was a "stampede," because to him it was a concentration of too many people in too small a space with nowhere to go but forward – people in the back were yelling, "One, two, three, push!" but they didn't know people in the front were falling. There was little noise. Some people tried to calm those who were panicking. Some shouted, "Stay up! Stay up or you're gone!" Some chanted, "Open the fucking doors!"

The forward crush continued and pressed up against those closed doors; the crush had started around 6:15 and ground on for an hour and a half or so. Klopp noticed that there were actual human waves swaying like palm trees in a hurricane. He saved his life by seeking out the eye of the hurricane, and he was swept out of the crush.

He couldn't find his wife. He ran to the first policeman he saw and shouted, "What are you doing? People are getting trampled up there." The policeman looked him over and asked, "What do you do for a living?" Klopp replied, almost in shock, "Working on a Ph.D. in language." The policeman said, "Well, you just used a dangling participle." Klopp, caught up in the absurdity, said, "I think I know more about language than you do." The policeman smiled: "Well, don't tell me how to do my job, then." Klopp lost his temper: "People are getting hurt." The policeman said, "Well, we can't do anything." Klopp finally got inside and found his wife.

A few feet away, Mark Helmkamp was pleading with a policeman to do something. He said to the cop, "Here, take my ID and bust me for false information if you don't believe me." He said the policeman told him to move along.

A day later, Helmkamp was still furious. "I was greatly disturbed by WCPO-TV's depiction of us as a drug-crazed mob. There were too many people and just two doors open. It was an incredible bottleneck; it was a slow squeeze, not a stampede. I was stuck in it for forty-five minutes. I went down twice and wasn't sure that I would make it. I saw guys with blue lips – they couldn't get oxygen. I saw, I think, four ticket takers after I walked over all the shoes to get in. I couldn't keep my feet on the ground the whole time. I kept my arms in front of my chest to keep from getting crushed. People were climbing up on other people's shoulders. Some people went berserk and started swinging their elbows. That was the only blood. There was no group panic. After I saw the dead people, it sunk in. Dead. Just dead. It pissed me off to see Uncle Walter Cronkite blaming us for this."

The doors were officially opened at 7:05; according to eyewitnesses, four doors out of the sixteen were open, and two of those were closed and blocked at times by guards with billy clubs. From where he was in the crowd, Phil Sheridan saw only one door open. "It looked like they attempted to open more but the crowd was so tightly packed, it was useless. I was maybe fifteen rows of people back, staring at this door, and it hung like about six inches open and they finally sprung it open and that's all I remember till I got inside. I could see people smashed up against the doors that weren't open. I had ahold of my girlfriend and my buddy grabbed me by the shoulders and I took him by the hand and we started to make our way through the turnstiles. Well, in that ten or fifteen seconds it took us to get our act together, we were now inside between the doors and the turnstiles and the door was a frenzy and they're still trying to take tickets! God, it was insane! I was three abreast in this goddamn turnstile, which was only eighteen inches wide! People were getting hurled in and shoved through the turnstiles and the ticket takers were still saying, 'Hey, where's your ticket?' The initial rush came about 6:30 because that's when people smelled blood, you know, the magic hour, they're finally gonna open the doors for us. There was continuous pushing till seven and then the doors opened shortly after that. God, this one girl, it must have been twenty minutes before the doors opened and all of a sudden I feel a tug on my arm; it's this girl, and her head was at my waist and she said, 'Excuse me, my feet are back there somewhere.' She was horizontal.

"I went back out to look for my friends; I saw – and this is after the show started, which was about 8:20 – I saw the same scene. It was still crazy. It was crazier between the outside doors and the turnstiles than it was outside, cause by then people were really going for broke. I found my friend Bill and he said he saw people going over the tops of the doors, he saw bodies piled in front of the door, and people were going over them and around them any way they could. At about nine, I saw more waves of people. I looked outside and saw what must have been thousands of dollars' worth of personal articles strewn everywhere, these terrible piles of shoes, shoes trapped in that chain-link fencing behind the turnstiles. I wonder about the kinds of injuries that weren't reported."

The twenty-five-man police force outside finally found the first body at 7:54 p.m. After the ambulances and the fire department and the fire chief and the mayor and the city safety director and the Flying Squad from the Academy of Medicine and additional police and the TV crews and everybody else got there, they finally understood that this was serious. Cincinnati proper put on its serious face. TV crews were asking onlookers if drugs and alcohol hadn't caused this "stampede."

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