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Stampede: What to Know

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on October 31, 2022

What Is a Stampede?

If you’ve ever been to a big concert, rally, sports event, or festival, you may have found yourself in the midst of a crowd of people packed together as far as the eye can see. Such large gatherings are common and usually don't result in any serious problems.

But if a crowd surges beyond the capacity of the space, or if there’s bad crowd management, chaos could result. When a crowd of people moves in the same direction at the same time, some may collide and pile up against or on top of each other. This can get very dangerous very quickly. Experts refer to such an incident as a stampede, crowd surge, or crowd crush.

Human stampedes have occurred at various types of gatherings around the world. One study found that between 1980 and 2007, there were around 215 crowd surge incidents, which led to more than 7,000 deaths and 14,000 injuries.

What Causes a Human Stampede?

A number of things may be at play when a crowd surge happens, ranging from unsafe behavior to poor venue design. Hazards that affect crowd safety include:

  • Dangerous behavior such as climbing on or destroying structures and equipment
  • Overcapacity
  • Bad crowd control
  • Poorly planned event spaces, such as those that lack clear exits
  • Narrow spaces
  • Physical barriers or concession stands that block exits or cause congestion
  • Moving vehicles sharing space with pedestrians
  • Loose or dangerous structures
  • Fire hazards like cooking equipment or flammable structures

While you might think most injuries and deaths in such incidents are cause by trampling, a lack of oxygen is often to blame. The crush of the crowd pushes against your chest and makes it hard to breathe, leading to what's called compressive asphyxia. It can also cause head and neck injuries.

How Does a Human Stampede Begin?

As the crowd begins to move, usually in the same direction, people jammed against one another start to push and pull within the swaying crowd formation. Those at the back tend to push forward, since they can’t see much of what’s in front of them. For the crowd to move ahead in the same direction, the people in the front would need to match the speed of this push from behind.

But if there’s a mismatch in speed caused by panic or by something blocking the way, this can trigger a sort of domino effect. The people at the back push forward faster than those in the front can keep up.

People may fall, or they may lose consciousness due to lack of oxygen. But often, the force of such a stampede can asphyxiate you while you’re still standing. Researchers say the force of even a small crowd crush is strong enough to bend steel railings.

How to Stay Safe at Crowded Events

If you’re planning to attend a concert, religious gathering, or sports event where you expect to see large, excited crowds in tight spaces, planning ahead can help you stay safe. Here are some things you can do to protect yourself:

  • Check the weather forecast before you leave for the venue. If it starts to rain or snow, the crowd could surge as people quickly seek shelter.
  • Figure out parking ahead of time so you don't have to rush to get in or out.
  • Don't go alone. Take a friend so you can look out for one another.
  • If it’s a ticketed event, give someone a copy of your seating details in case they need to find you after an emergency.
  • Carry your ID and cell phone with you.
  • Wear bright, recognizable clothes so your loved ones can find you if there's an emergency.
  • Don't wear long, flowy clothes or jewelry that can get caught or tangled and cause injuries.
  • Wear comfortable shoes and make sure your laces are tied so you don't trip.
  • Take a water bottle and drink plenty of fluids. You don't want to get dehydrated or dizzy when you're in the middle of an energetic crowd.
  • If you’re planning to take children, supervise them closely to make sure they always have enough space.

Tips for Crowd Safety

Once you arrive at the event venue, take these steps to stay safe in a crowd:

  • Don't be the first to rush in when the gates open. The energy and excitement of a forward-pushing crowd could lead to a surge.
  • As you enter, make a mental note of all the exits. If there's a stampede, you may not be able to get to the one closest to you.
  • Pay attention to where first aid centers and security are stationed, in case you need help later on.
  • Stay away from barricades or fences near the main stage. This is where crowd pressure tends to surge. Try to stick to the sides or less crowded spaces.
  • Stand on even, level ground. You're more likely to fall in wet or muddy areas.
  • Keep an eye out for bottles, cans, and other trash you could trip on.
  • When you’re in a moving crowd, try to walk at the same speed as the rest of the crowd.
  • When going up stairs, hills, or an escalator, hold railings for support if they’re available.
  • Don't climb onto event equipment or structures. A collapse could trigger panic.
  • Pay attention to the crowd's behavior and dynamics throughout the event.
  • If you fall in a moving crowd, get up quickly or ask for help immediately.
  • Should you get stuck in a surge, keep your feet moving at all times.

If you get injured, find medical help as soon as possible. Alert medical personnel at the event venues, call 911, or head to the nearest hospital.

What to Do If You're Stuck in a Crowd Crush

If you’re stuck in a stampede or a crowd crush, you should:

  • Fold your arms toward your body like a boxer to keep yourself steady and safe from being pulled or caught.
  • Try to keep some breathing space around your face. That’s because a lack of oxygen could cause you to faint or feel dizzy. 
  • Keep your feet firmly on the ground.
  • Keep moving in the direction of the crowd. Don’t fight it or try to shove ahead. 
  • Try to walk at the same speed as the rest of the crowd.
  • If you lose balance or fall to the ground, get back up on your feet as soon as possible or ask for help.If you’re not able to stand back up, curl your body into a ball and protect your head and neck area. 
  • Steer clear from walls, railings, fences, or other solid or barricading objects. This is where crowd pressure tends to surge.
  • Stay calm. Try not to push or pull away from the moving crowd. 
  • If you’re able to, edge yourself to the side of the crowd or a place where the crowd is less dense. 
  • If there’s a fire or smoke, crouch down low. That’s because smoke rises up and could cut off your oxygen supply in tight crowds and make it harder to breathe.

If you get injured, find medical help as soon as possible. Alert medical personnel at the event venues, call 911, or head to the nearest hospital.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Cambridge University: “Human Stampedes: A Systematic Review of Historical and Peer-reviewed Sources.”

Babson College: "Crowd Sense Tips.”

Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness: “Epidemiological characteristics of human stampedes.”

Risk Frontiers: “Behaviour and Mechanics of Crowd Crush Disasters.”

Health and Safety Executive UK: “Assess crowd safety risks and identify hazards.”

CDC: "Travel to Mass Gatherings."

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