It was Evan Pond’s first concert in nearly two years. The 16-year-old Toronto resident had expected a cathartic two days in Houston, Texas, at Travis Scott’s Astroworld Festival — an escape from a trying year and a half of no live music during the pandemic. By the end of the weekend, though, he was grieving on the sidewalk at a makeshift memorial site.
“If one person pushed, it was a wave effect of people getting pushed to the front, sides, and back,” Pond says, recalling what he saw at the festival, where eight people died as the result of a crowd surge at Scott’s set on Friday. “If someone fell, people were pushing on top. People were jumping on medic carts. At some points, I couldn’t breathe. It’s traumatizing. Looking left and right, seeing people being carried out, passed out on the floor, and crying for help, the whole thing is just crazy to me.”
Pond spoke with Rolling Stone at NRG Park on Sunday, amid a hodgepodge of grieving attendees, people looking to reclaim lost items at the lost and found, and a few people hawking T-shirts they couldn’t find buyers for after the fiasco. Portions of the chain-link fence outside the festival were adorned with poster boards, glow stick necklaces shaped like hearts, stuffed animals, bows, concert tees, and pictures of the deceased attendees. Sections of the adjoining sidewalk were filled with prayer candles, miniature Bibles, flowers, and a note on the ground that read “no one deserves to die like this.”
The teen was one of many who came back to the Astroworld Festival grounds to grieve and pay their respects to the people who died Friday, and as festival-goers look back on the tragic night, many are sad and confused, wondering what organizers and fellow attendees alike could’ve done to prevent the disaster.
“Everyone has a part to play in this,” Pond says. “People were reckless, and I wish they were more understanding about what they were doing. It takes a certain type of person to continue to push and shove in the crowd when you see someone down on the ground. And a lot of the staff here could’ve done more. I feel like the event was understaffed, security wasn’t doing much.”
Many attendees echoed those sentiments on Sunday. Those who came to the memorial and spoke with Rolling Stone described a disorganized environment, a free-for-all where fans were pushing, shoving, and walking over one another the closer they were to the main stage. Security and other Astroworld workers were not helping much to dampen the chaos in the crowds, according to attendees.
Live Nation and festival organizers did not immediately return Rolling Stone‘s request for comment, but the Houston Police Department said there were 528 HPD officers on the scene in addition to 755 private security officers provided by Live Nation.
On Saturday, Houston officials opened an investigation into the tragedy to determine the cause of the crowd rush, as well as fans’ inability to escape, according to Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña. Unsubstantiated rumors swirled that one crowd member was injecting others with needles, although Houston Police Chief Troy Finner did report that a security officer was revived with Narcan after being pricked in their neck by an unknown needle.
The festival started out hectic, multiple attendees say, with merchandise lines devolving into formless crowds. By the time Scott went on stage, attendees recall seeing ambulance carts collecting crowd members, as well as medics giving unconscious festival-goers CPR. No one who spoke with Rolling Stone realized that people died at the festival until well after the event ended.
“If That’s What Hell Is Like, I Never Want to Go to Hell”
Demarkus Bullock, a 28-year-old Houston resident who attended the festival on Friday, came to NRG Park on Sunday to pick up his phone from the lost and found. He lost it in the melee and said that he didn’t dare bend down to pick it up, lest he be trampled. Bullock recalled fans rushing toward the stage just before Scott’s set began, and he likened standing in the crowd after that to “drowning in quicksand.”
“It was like being in the bottom of the ocean, where you can see the top but you can’t swim up,” Bullock says. “I made it out, and I was hyperventilating. Anyone in their right mind would’ve panicked. I had no elbow room and could barely breathe. Everyone was pulling. If that’s what hell is like, I never want to go to hell.”
Nineteen-year-old Houstonian Jarrod Bone went to the festival with his 23-year-old brother Zach. The brothers, also in the lost-and-found line, say they were prepared for the riled-up crowds and mosh pits that often accompany a Travis Scott concert, but this was unprecedented. Jarrod says multiple people passed out around him; he had to help lift them up to be carried out of the packed area like crowd-surfers.
“Wherever the crowd was going was where you were going,” Jarrod says. “You’d get pushed one way, then the other, you could go horizontal at times. One dude, he had to be around 18 or 19, he was getting carried while someone was yelling ‘He’s passed out, he’s passed out!’ He was crowd-surfing unconscious, and we helped him get over the rail where the security detail was. That happened maybe two or three times, and I helped maybe five or six people get over the rail to security.”
Andreas Compean, a 22-year-old Dallas resident, also helped carry people out. Positioned near the front of the crowd by the stage, he recalls seeing several girls nearby panicking and crying as they struggled to move or breathe.
“The only way I could breathe was with my face looking completely up,” he says, holding a bouquet of orange flowers he later left along the hundreds of others along the fence. “I had to pick up a lady behind me with her husband, and it took me five minutes just to turn around. I also had to keep my arms around my body to protect my ribcage so I wouldn’t get squished. There were a lot of people there. I think they could’ve oversold on the tickets, and people were sneaking in. I found out about the deaths when we got home; it’s sad but I wasn’t surprised.”
“We Were Feet Away From People Literally Dying”
Not everyone in attendance was so close to the most hectic parts of the crowd. Those who were toward the back right, like 43-year-old Laredo resident Carlos Cuevas, knew the crowds were tight but didn’t see much of the calamity further ahead.
Still, he had an “eerie feeling” all day, noting how hectic even the T-shirt line was by 10 a.m. As he heads home, he’s particularly contemplative as he thinks about the passing of fellow Laredo resident Rudy Peña, one of the confirmed victims.
Peña, 23, was a former wide receiver on his varsity football team at Joseph W. Nixon High School in Laredo and was attending Laredo College to study criminology. “My God, how do I even describe him? He was the sweetest person. He was responsible. He was there for everybody,” his sister Jennifer Peña told Rolling Stone. “He loved to be close to his friends and family. He helped a lot. He was always smiling. He would come to me for advice. I loved that.”
Cuevas is terrified, in retrospect, of how close he was to chaos. “It was like a jungle, and there were all these medics and cops, but no one was doing anything. Security was just standing around,” he says. “And we had no idea what was really going on. We were feet away from people literally dying, and we were over here celebrating and having a good time with no clue.”