70 minutes at Astroworld

A countdown to catastrophe

Published : 12 Nov 2021 09:13 PM | Updated : 14 Nov 2021 03:36 PM

Anticipation had been building for hours, but never more than now, as the red numerals on the countdown clock disappeared and the first synthesized notes vibrated. An image of an eagle in a fireball hovered above the stage, a neon red tunnel appeared and eight towers of flames rose to the sky. Leaping from darkness into the glow, rapper Travis Scott emerged, the instant for which tens of thousands gathered before him had waited.

In the thrill of the moment, clamoring for an idol, many pushed forward, thrusting revelers into revelers, closer and closer and closer, until it seemed every inch was swallowed. Then, fighting the compression or seeking escape, people pushed from the front to the back, and new ripples came with it.

What followed last Friday in Houston is clouded by unanswered questions and strikingly different experiences based on where someone stood, which swells of movement reached them, and how they handled the crush. But in the 70 minutes the headliner was on stage in a show that left nine dead, one thing was certain: Nearly everyone felt the waves of humanity, borne of excitement but soaked with risk, as they spread.

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 “You became an organism,” said 26-year-old Steven Gutierrez of Ellenville, New York, who is 6-foot-2 and 391 pounds but nonetheless found himself struck by the power of the pushes that sent him drifting from his spot. “We’re all one. You’re moving with the crowd. The crowd’s like water. It’s like an ocean.”

The enthusiasm of some 50,000 spectators at the sold-out Astroworld festival was evident from the time gates opened seven hours earlier, when some of the earliest arrivals rushed through entrances with such force that metal detectors were toppled as security guards and police on horseback struggled to keep up. Though the concert grounds hosted numerous acts, Scott, a Houston-born musician who founded the festival in 2018 on the heels of his chart-topping album “Astroworld,” was undoubtedly the top draw. Some fans made a beeline for the stage built solely for the headliner, staking out positions they would hold for hours under the manufactured peaks of “Utopia Mountain.”

As afternoon turned to evening and the countdown clock appeared around 8:30 p.m., the crowd grew denser and denser, attendees said, and the first waves of motion began to ripple.

With five minutes left and latecomers pushing in, it tightened more.

In the final 30 seconds on the clock, the craggy peaks of the stage’s mountain turned to a volcano, and when the moment came, the crowd chanted: “Ten, nine, eight, seven, six ...”

Scott appeared. The pushes grew stronger. The first shockwaves of fear emerged.

Eligio Garcia, 18, of Corpus Christi, Texas, figures it was just 40 seconds into Scott’s set that he looked at his girlfriend with concern. They felt heat swaddle their bodies. It became hard to breathe.

Screams echoed, begging: “Please, help me!” Behind him, people were falling. It looked to him like a human whirlpool. They felt the push and his left arm slipped away from her.

In an instant, both found themselves tangled on the ground in a pile of bodies. They managed to get up, and Garcia said they screamed to nearby production staff for help but got no response. Every way out seemed impossible, but they eventually made their way to safety.

“We gotta get out of here,” he told his girlfriend. “We can’t fall back into this pit.”

Travis Scott’s fans are dubbed “ragers” and are expected to be in constant motion at a show. The rapper, who dreamed of being a wrestler as a child and has said he wants his shows to resemble WWF matches, cheers chaos from the stage and stirs up frantic energy. 

He even has a gold necklace mimicking a street sign: A jewel-encrusted red circle with a person standing still, a diagonal red slash through the body.

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