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

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"All the procedures used Monday night were the procedures that were implemented on all the previous shows where nothing ever went wrong."

Could he have had the authority to order those front doors opened when it became apparent they should be opened?

"No. Our only responsibility is to get the group onstage, to pay for staffing at the coliseum" (although he said he had no responsibility for the size of the staff). He said Electric Factory had provided "peer security" (i.e., young people who are not in uniform) for the floor-level general-admission area and had arranged to have paramedics and ambulances ready.

Electric Factory's attorney, Tom Gould, said he thought that everybody concerned had a zone of responsibility and that everybody discharged "what they thought was in the best interest and was the right thing to do." Levy and Gould both said that maybe no one was at fault; perhaps it was a natural disaster.

Levy was quick to point out that Electric Factory had promoted Cincinnati's first outdoor rock show, the Eagles, at Riverfront Stadium. "We had 52,000 kids, general admission and the same parries involved in the planning. Dale Menkhaus and I worked extensively on the security. And nothing happened. But what I think we're faced with here is unusual circumstances that all merged at one rime and in one place. Maybe there were enough doors; were they open early enough? Was there a high level of drugs or intoxication? The music from the inside?"

But, he was reminded, things had gone wrong before. Some earlier shows had been violent.

"I can't deny that there are problems at shows; it happens everywhere in the country, right? Nobody could predict it, and I don't feel anybody could have controlled it."

Soon thereafter came the first of what will undoubtedly be an unending series of lawsuits. Todd Volkman, a person who was allegedly injured, filed a $1.2-million class-action suit (which can be expanded to recover tens of millions) against the promoter, the coliseum and the Who. Not the city of Cincinnati, on whose property he was allegedly injured. A second, filed by Betty Snyder, mother of the late Phillip Snyder, does name the city as one of the defendants. In that $10.25-million suit, the city is accused of negligence in its failure to follow the advice from its own Human Relations Commission to ban festival searing. It also alleges the city police were negligent in failing to enforce drug and liquor laws. (The police reported twenty-eight arrests for drugs and disorderly conduct on the plaza the night of the concert.)

One local lawyer said gleefully that there isn't enough liability insurance in the world to cover the potential lawsuits that could come out of the Who show. Under Ohio law, parties who feel injured physically or emotionally (a hot line was immediately set up for the emotionally warped) have two years to file suit.

The city of Cincinnati registered immediate civic outrage. No more festival seating, probably, said the city government A task force was set up to find out what was wrong. Frank Wood of WEBN-FM was named to it. He said that he was not sure what the task force could do, all he knew was that he had read in the morning paper that "I'm not allowed to point a finger at anyone, and I think dial's a shame." The task force has no subpoena power, and it was widely viewed in Cincinnati as window dressing.

The coroner's office said the dead apparently died from "suffocation by asphyxiation due to compression" and "suffocation due to accidental mob stampede." Toxicology tests for drug or alcohol residues in the victims were forthcoming.

An editorial in the Cincinnati Post said the coliseum had been the city's "citadel of lawlessness." Mark Helmkamp called home to tell his folks he was okay and he got a pot lecture. The victims were blamed.

Promoters across the country blamed festival seating. Larry Magid said that he felt terrible and that he personally didn't like festival searing, but that's what the kids wanted. A kid in Cincinnati printed up a few T-shirts that read I Survived the Who Concert.

Roger Daltrey, weary and shaken, said, "It was really a freak; it's not a nightly occurrence, you know."

The mayor of Providence, Rhode Island, canceled the Who show there, saying that after two performances, the Who was averaging 5.5 fatalities per show. Angry kids marched in Cincinnati and in Providence to say that rock & roll should not be automatically blamed. They got little support.

This story is from the January 24th, 1980 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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