Community mourns Astroworld deaths as Houston officials investigate circumstances

State & Regional

Two people who knew an unidentified victim of a fatal incident at the Houston Astroworld concert embrace at a memorial on Sunday, Nov. 7, 2021. (AP Photo/Robert Bumsted)

HOUSTON (Nexstar/AP) — Investigators Sunday are still trying to determine how eight people died in a packed crowd at a Houston music festival, as families mourn the dead.

Authorities said in a news conference Saturday they plan to use videos, witness interviews and a review of concert procedures to figure out what went wrong Friday night during a performance by rapper Travis Scott. The tragedy unfolded when the crowd surged the stage, squeezing people so tightly they couldn’t breathe.

Friends Chase Maye and Josiah Orr traveled all the way to Texas from Pennsylvania to enjoy the Scott’s Astroworld music festival. The two said they’ve been to countless concerts, but have never seen anything as horrific as what unfolded Friday night, calling it “pure chaos.”

“It was like elbows and your back, couldn’t move it at all, chest to chest with everyone,” Maye said. “I even tried getting out and I just kind of was like, ‘I’m gonna pass out, I’m gonna pass out.’”

Maye was one of the dozens who had to be treated on sight at the concert. He says he was not under the influence but believes he passed out from dehydration and stress, coming into consciousness in a tent on site.

Over the weekend, a memorial of flowers, candles, condolence cards and Travis Scott T-shirts were placed outside the concert venue, NRG Stadium Park.

Officials have not released additional information about the 8 people who died as a result of Friday’s chaos, but individual families and schools have been releasing information about them.

A spokesperson for Spring Branch ISD confirmed with Nexstar that one of its students, 14-year-old John Hilgert, is among the eight people who died. Hilgert was a freshman at Memorial High School in student. The school’s principal sent the following email informing faculty and parents on Saturday:

We are deeply saddened to inform you that a male ninth grade student died last night in an incident at the Astroworld Festival. Our hearts go out to the student’s family and to his friends and our staff at Memorial. This is a terrible loss, and the entire MHS family is grieving today. Please keep the student’s family in your thoughts and prayers as they face this tragedy. We will make counselors available to students next week to offer any help and support needed.

Memorial High School Principal Lisa Weir

The dead, according to friends and family members, included a 14-year-old high school student; a 16-year-old girl who loved dancing; and a 21-year-old engineering student at the University of Dayton. The youngest was 14, the oldest 27. 

Houston officials did not immediately release the victims’ names or the cause of death, but family and friends began to name their loved ones and tell their stories Sunday. 

Thirteen people remained hospitalized Sunday. Their conditions were not disclosed. Over 300 people were treated at a field hospital at the concert.

City officials said they were in the early stages of investigating what caused the pandemonium at the sold-out Astroworld festival, an event founded by Scott. About 50,000 people were there. 

Authorities said that among other things, they will look at how the area around the stage was designed.

Julio Patino, of Naperville, Illinois, who was in London on business when he got a middle-of-the-night call informing him his 21-year-old son Franco was dead, said he had a lot of questions about what happened.

“These concerts should be controlled,” Patino said. “If they don’t know how to do that, they should have canceled the concert right then, when they noticed there was an overcrowd.” He added: “They should not wait until they see people laying down on the floor, lifeless.”

Steven Adelman, vice president of the industry group Event Safety Alliance, which was formed after the collapse of a stage at the Indiana State Fair in 2011 killed seven people, helped write industry guidelines widely used today. 

He said investigators will examine the design of the safety barriers and whether they correctly directed crowds or contributed to the crush of spectators. He said, too, that authorities will look at whether something incited the crowd besides Scott taking the stage.

Adelman said another question is whether there was enough security there, noting there is a nationwide shortage of people willing to take low-wage, part-time security gigs.

“Security obviously was unable to stop people. Optically, that’s really bad-looking,” he said. “But as for what it tells us, it’s too early to say.”

Contemporary Services Corp., headquartered in Los Angeles, was responsible for security staff at the festival, according to county records in Texas. Representatives for the company — which advertises online as being “recognized worldwide as the pioneer, expert and only employee owned company in the crowd management field” — did not immediately respond to emails and phone messages seeking comment.

Houston police and fire department officials said their investigation will include reviewing video taken by concert promoter Live Nation, as well as dozens of clips from people at the show. 

Officials also planned to review the event’s security plan and various permits issued to organizers to see whether they were properly followed. In addition, investigators planned to speak with Live Nation representatives, Scott and concertgoers.

Izabella Ramirez of Texas City was celebrating her 21st birthday and said that once Scott came on stage, no one could move.

“Everybody was squishing in, and people were trying to move themselves to the front. You couldn’t even lift up your arms,” Ramirez said. 

Ramirez said a security guard pulled her over the barricade, while her date, Jason Rodriguez, lifted her up.

“Everyone was yelling for different things. They were either yelling for Travis or they were yelling for help,” Rodriguez said.

On video posted to social media, Scott could be seen stopping the concert at one point and asking for aid for someone in the audience: “Security, somebody help real quick.”

There is a long history of similar catastrophes at concerts, sporting events and even religious events. In 1979, 11 people were killed as thousands of fans tried to get into Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum to see a concert by The Who. Other past crowd catastrophes include the deaths of 97 people at a soccer match in Hillsborough Stadium in 1989 in Sheffield, England, and numerous disasters connected with the annual hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia.

Experts who have studied deaths caused by crowd surges say they are often a result of too many people packed into too small a space. 

Also Sunday, at least two of the first of many expected lawsuits were filed on behalf of a man injured in the crush of people in state court in Houston. Attorneys for Manuel Souza sued Scott, Live Nation and others, saying they were responsible. Another lawsuit was filed on behalf of Noah Gutierrez by Ben Crump, a civil rights lawyer who has represented the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black people killed by police.

In a tweet posted Saturday, Scott said he was “absolutely devastated by what took place.” He pledged to work “together with the Houston community to heal and support the families in need.”

Friday night was not Scott’s first instance of problems at his concert.

In May 2017, Scott — whose real name is Jacques Webster — was arrested in Arkansas, according to court records. Police alleged he encouraged people to rush to the stage and bypass security. Scott pled guilty to disorderly conduct, but two other charges of inciting a riot and endangering a minor were dropped against him.

In one of Scott’s popular songs, “Stargazing,” one lyrical verse states: “it ain’t a mosh pit if ain’t no injuries.”

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