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

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Mayor Ken Blackwell – this was his first day on the job – was summoned from his dinner with House Speaker Tip O'Neill and said it looked to him like this awful tragedy had been caused by "festive seating." It was his decision to continue the concert, lest the many thousands inside riot if the show were stopped.

Promoter Larry Magid said he first learned of the trouble at 8:45 from a coliseum employee and went backstage to tell the Who's manager, Bill Curbishly, that there were four dead, "two ODs and two crushed." According to Curbishly, the fire marshall arrived and said he thought there was a mass over-dosage. He wanted to stop the concert; then he learned that the deaths were due to asphyxiation and that people were still being treated on the plaza level.

Curbishly told him it would be senseless to stop the concert, that there could be a riot and people might stampede back across the plaza. The fire marshall said, "I agree with you totally."

By the time the show was over, Curbishly knew of eleven deaths. He told the Who that something serious had happened and they should hurry their encore. After the brief encore, he took them into the tuning room and told them of the deaths. They were devastated.

"Initially, we felt stunned and empty," said Roger Daltrey three days after the concert. "We felt we couldn't go on. But you gotta. There's no point in stopping."

Lieutenant Menkhaus said sixteen doors were open and Cal Levy echoed that; Electric Factory attorney Tom Gould said nine to eleven doors were open and Roger Daltrey said three were open. Dozens of eyewitnesses told Rolling Stone that never during the trouble were more than four doors open and that only two were open most of the time. The coliseum management still refuses to say how many tickets were sold, how many guards were on duty, how many ticket takers or ushers there were or anything else. Curbishly said Electric Factory paid $7800 to the coliseum for ushers, ticket takers, interior security, cleanup.

Including emergency exits, there are 106 doors at the coliseum (although John Tafaro, spokesman for the coliseum, would not confirm or deny this number); why at times only two at the main entrance were open will be a point of speculation for some time.

When Riverfront Coliseum first opened on September 9th, 1975, with a concert by the Allman Brothers, an usher on duty named Donald Fox said that the coliseum had too many outside doors and that gates rather than glass doors should be installed at the main entrance on the plaza. His was the first of many warnings that were ignored. Riverfront Coliseum was trouble waiting to happen.

Riverfront Coliseum exists because a man named Brian Heekin wanted a hockey team in Cincinnati and therefore needed an arena. Heekin and his brother, Trey, and their friend William DeWitt Jr., all great sports fans, were the guiding forces behind the coliseum. In the early Seventies, Brian – whose great-grandfather formed the Heekin Can Company, which was the family's fortune and its entree into Cincinnati's relatively small business and social elite – had tried to buy the Kentucky Colonels of the American Basketball Association and bring them to Cincinnati; he lost out to now-Kenrucky Governor John Y. Brown. But Heekin really wanted and sought a National Hockey Leagueteam. When Cincinnati began talking about a renewal project for the riverfront area, Heekin popped up with the idea of a big indoor sports arena there. He initially wanted the city to build it and lease it to his Cincinnati Hockey Club (later changed to Cincinnati Sports Inc). The city came close to financing and building such an arena. Heekin tried and failed to get local banks to finance an $18-million arena. Heekin was offering the city an NHL team, the ABA Colonels and a World Team Tennis franchise. After it seemed to him that the city was not going to help him, Heekin decided to build his arena in the suburbs. All of a sudden he got what he called "unbelievable" pressure from local businessmen to build at the waterfront. And all of a sudden he began getting local support. The chamber of commerce got behind the idea, the governor offered to help with state revenue bonds, and then, before anyone knew what was happening, the chamber of commerce called a press conference on August 8th, 1973, to announce that a sports arena would be built at the riverfront, that local banks and savings and loan associations would put up $19 million in state industrial revenue bonds, that $4 million would come from Heekin's Cincinnati Sports Inc., that another $4 million was forthcoming from city, state and federal funds, and that a final $1 million would come from leasing the arena's posh sky boxes to wealthy patrons. Heekin's newly formed Cincinnati Coliseum Corporation bought three acres of land next to Riverfront Stadium from the city for $200,000. The McNulty Company of Minneapolis drew up the plans, and the Universal Contracting Corporation of Norwood, Ohio, was contracted to build it. The city ended up using state highway funds and federal funds to build the elaborate sky bridges that connect the coliseum concourse to street level. Thus, all the concrete right outside the coliseum doors is city property. That's where the eleven died.

Heekin never did get the NHL franchise he said he had, nor did he get a World Team Tennis franchise. The Kentucky Colonels did play a few games there before pulling out. Gradually, as with so many such arenas around the country, rock shows supported the place. Instead of an NHL team, Heekin got the World Hockey Association Stingers, hardly a major draw. When the WHA folded and the Stingers were absorbed into the Central Hockey League, Heekin's corporation got what was said to be a settlement close to $3-million and the Stingers continued to play in the coliseum, paying rent of $4000 a game. The Stingers played there two nights after the Who and drew 869 paying fans. The University of Cincinnati basketball team still plays games at the coliseum but has reportedly considered pulling out in the past because of heating problems, among other things. At the start of one game between two other teams, the players sat huddled in blankets because the temperature inside was in the forties. After the Who show, the NCAA decided to reject the coliseum's bid for basketball finals there, although the NCAA claims the decision had nothing to do with the tragedy. Promoters canceled the two remaining rock shows of 1979 after the Who show. Local journalists said the coliseum's future was not bright. Big events there the past year have been a tractor-pulling contest and a Jehovah's Witnesses convention.

The coliseum's first fatality came on October 4th, 1975, when seventeen-year-old Thomas Lambert, pursued by police who said he had cursed them, jumped or fell to his death from the plaza level to the street below.

Security problems have been noticeable at the coliseum. In March 1976, police officer Walter Scott told the Cincinnati Enquirer that there had been many incidents in which coliseum personnel refused to cooperate in emergency situations. He said he was worried that a life-or-death situation might arise. On August 3rd, 1976, when Elton John played the arena, there was big trouble. A crowd of about 2000 rushed the doors. No one was hurt badly, but police and fire officials found numerous fire-code violations, including locked exit doors. An editorial in the Enquirer the next day said that things weren't right at the coliseum during rock shows, but it concluded: "We'd be surprised, though, if the Elton John fracas is repeated anytime soon." On August 5th, 1976, fire captain Ed Schneuer told local media that problems were getting worse at the coliseum because of festival seating, and that kids were gathering there earlier and earlier because of it. Fire captain James Gamm said that festival seating was a problem because, in a case of serious trouble inside the coliseum, bodies could "pile up in a major catastrophe."

City councilman Springer said publicly that festival seating caused a "climate of disorder." Brian Heekin disagreed, saying that Springer was not qualified to comment on people's behavior at concerts and that kids liked festival seating. Heekin also said he wouldn't mind talking with city officials about the problem of people urinating outside the coliseum.

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