Meditations on crowds

By nature, by profession, and by training I bloody well hate crowds.

A man I admired once informed me that the IQ of a crowd could be ascertained by taking the lowest IQ of any single person in the crowd, and dividing that by the number of people in the crowd.

For myself, I always think of a crowd as one large, dumb, and happy organism … right up until something decides to take a thunder run at the crowd, and it becomes a large, dumb, and dangerous organism.

Unfortunately, it is a Fact of Life that, upon occasion, crowds must be endured.

And while there are several types of dangerous crowds, and several ways in which a crowd presents a danger, the focus of today’s musing is confined to that crowd phenomenon called the “crush” or the “stampede”.

A “crush” is when a crowd takes it into its’ multiple little mind that Something Bad Has Happened, and decides to unarse the A.O.

There are two things that should be noted here.  1) 90+% of all deaths resulting from a panicked crowd are from traumatic asphyxia or compression asphyxia; and 2) The majority of the victims of compression asphyxia will have died standing up.

The obvious question is:  “LawDog, what is ‘compression asphyxia’?”

Glad you asked.

When you get a large mass of dumb and panicked suddenly moving in one direction, Dumb and Panicked tends to bring a lot of force to the dance.  How much force?  At several scenes where fatal “crush” events have taken place, After Action Reviews of the incidents have revealed steel railings bent and deformed by nothing more than the press of multiple bodies.  In at least one (the 1979 The Who concert stampede.  I think)  recreations of the accident show a horizontal application of force equaling about one thousand (1000) pounds.

One half of a ton of force, plus or minus, applied sideways.

It takes far less than that to compress the rib-cage of a normal human being to the point that they can no longer inhale.  Without the ability to draw air into your lungs, unconsciousness sets in at ten to forty seconds, brain damage starts at about four minutes, and death follows fairly quickly after that.

“Traumatic asphyxia” or “compression asphyxia” is what happens when a squishy person gets between an immovable object — such as a wall — and the irresistible force of a mass of a panicked crowd.

So.  How to avoid this?

First off, stay away from crowds.  If you can’t avoid that, stay away from crowds in confined spaces — and by “confined space” I mean any place with more walls around the area than open air.

However, if you find yourself having to be in a confined space with a crowd, I’d like you to keep at least two things in mind:

1)  Crowds are made up of people.  And people are creatures of habit.  One of those irritating little habits is that people want to go out of an area the same way that they came in.  And that goes double when they’re panicked.

When things go agley, and The Crowd decides that it’s Time To Be Somewhere Else, The Crowd will escape the area the same way it came in.  Only a lot faster, and damn the torpedoes.

That means that if 99% of The Crowd came into the dance venue by way of those two double doors right there, unless there’s A Damned Fine Reason preventing such, when the crush happens, The Crowd is going to go right out those two double doors right there.  At full, berserk speed.  And they will do their damnedest to fit the entire Fire Marshal’s Maximum Occupancy Number into that one doorway, all at the same time.

So, the best way to avoid this crunchy, sticky mess is to exercise some of that Situational Awareness when you first enter the venue, and spot at least two exits that aren’t the main entrances.

Given our druthers, we’d like these exits to be unobtrusive, and on walls as far away from the walls that the main entrances are on as possible, but we’ll take what we can get.

But what do I mean by “unobtrusive”?  Find exits that Joe and Jane Average don’t think of as exits.  When you’re standing in front of the counter at Mickey Ds, how many of you count the kitchen back-door as one of your exits?

When you’re at the club, watching your very favourite band at a live show, and Murphy decides that it’s just not your day, is there an exit for the entertainers behind the stage? Maybe another one for the booze delivery behind the bar?  Might behoove us to find out either before going, or pretty ricky-tick after showing up, yes?

Things go pear-shaped, The Crowd heads back out through that single entrance door on the south wall, you need to be the guy skiting out the roadie smoke-pit door behind the stage on the north wall.  Lot fewer folks trying to get up under your hat with you that way.

However it ends up, find another exit that every Tom, Dick, and Harriet won’t be trying to get out of at the same time as you.

2) Think of a crowd as an ocean.  Like an ocean, it has surges and currents, and when the stampede happens, think of it as a really strong current.

Now, you can’t swim against a really strong current.  You can try, but it’s a pretty good way to wind up exhausted, and then dead.

When that mass of people — the current — starts rushing towards the exit, don’t fight against it. There will be surges and pauses — maybe so small as to only be noticed if you’re looking for them, but those surges and pauses will be there. When the surge is on, go with the current, diagonally, towards the edge where the current — the press of people — isn’t as strong, and (hopefully) away from anything you can get jammed up against.  When the current pauses, slip between people, always heading for where the density of bodies is less.

As the current of people moves, it’ll break around small immovable structures like pillars, staircases, vehicles.  Stay away from the upstream side, where people are running and crushing into the structure.  Instead, find the downstream side — the lee side — of the structure, if you need to pause.

However, I caution you against using the lee side of a structure for very long.  Remember that whatever condition that started the panic in the first place may still be about, and may be looking to introduce itself to you.  Pause in the lee.  Re-orient yourself; Re-assess the situation; Re-acquire your goal/target; and drive on.

Lastly, always have two rendezvous points.  The first one is where you exited your transportation, before entering the scene.  The parking lot where you left your vehicle.  The front of the structure where the taxi dropped you off.  That’s your default RP you should use for a normal evening.

However, in the slight chance that you didn’t have a normal evening — things went Biblically pear-shaped, a mass response by public servants was warranted, “Aloha Snackbar” was yelled, CNN is dotting their cupcakes in somber-yet-happy anticipation, dog and cats living together, whatever — have someplace within walking distance where your entire party knows to go for a headcount.

This is more important than you’d think.  In the aftermath of stampedes, riots, what have you, there are more people wandering around, looking for their buddies and generally getting in the way, than there should be.  

When five of you went out for a night on the town, something went squishy, and all five of you are all right, but all five of you spend the entire bloody evening wandering around looking for each other, it creates a lot more stress and gnashing of teeth than is altogether good for every one’s blood pressure.

For pity’s sake, have a rendezvous point.


That should do for the quick-and-dirty on crush crowds.  I’m for bed.

Y’all have a safe evening.


Green chili stew
Quick-and-dirty chili

10 thoughts on “Meditations on crowds”

  1. Great read, but don't overlook the importance of "mindset". Get angry and determined that you will survive and will go looking for the cause of your problem. You, and only you are responsible for your survival so remember what Law Dog said and be prepared, be situationally aware and know your environment.

  2. Caught a video by a taxi driver going by the concert/Mandalay area. Lots of people just POURING over very high walls and then jogging down the street to exit the area.
    Earlier, she caught some of the shooting audio as she drove past and scanned the lower window area of the hotel. A full mag or belt got her turning around and leaving. She heard the warnings over her dispatch channel while she was at the Mandalay, but it didn't appear she believed it until she actually heard the shooting. I think she arrived between mag dumps. Long time delay between dumps.

  3. The places I go to hear bands play tend to be small neighborhood bars located in wood frame buildings. If need be, I'll make my own damn door. The three times I've gone to a show at a sturdier venue, two of them were at a place I worked maintenance at (mumble) years ago, so I still know all the "Authorized Personnel Only" routes.

  4. Great advice, as a former firefighter I always count the kitchen as an exit, same thing with unmarked steel doors at a mall, they are usually delivery entrances. This also applies to places like your house. I can't tell you the number of times we found a fire victim had crawled past a door or a window trying to get to the door they always entered by.

  5. I recall reading that a survivor of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire was survivor as she didn't follow "the crowd" but followed the supervisors/management… who had a different (and not locked!) exit.

  6. My off-grid cabin has a single door at the front. It also has eight windows. If there's a need to get out, I'm pretty darned sure me and one of those windows are going to have a meeting of the minds.

    That being said, I'm not much of a crowd person, but I work in a busy poultry plant. There may be lots of ways to get out, but I can guarantee that management doesn't want you using them. Sorry, but if the "official" way out in case of fire (go out through the break room which is how you enter the building) is blocked, I'm going out through the loading docks, the trash dock, the cooler to another department with doors to the outside, even over to evisceration which has several doors to the outisde (break room, emergency exits, continue on through to live hang which is WIDE OPEN to the outdoors where the trucks come on to unload the chickens …) I refuse to have to worry about being trampled or crushed.

  7. Sometimes "hunker down and wait" is a good idea as well. In the lee of something large , of course. Let the crowd do it's thing if you can't get past or they are carrying you towards those big door. Find a spot in the lee and let 'em go past. Did this at a fire in a concert one. Paniced people are indistinguishable from cattle stampeding…and as mindless.

  8. SA… It doesn't start when things go south… It starts when you walk toward the function.

  9. Another thing to keep in mind is taking the time as an adult to keep your tree climbing skills non-rusty. My dad made sure my older brother and I had 2 sets of climbing skills growing up. The obvious – how to get OURSELVES up and over a fence in a few seconds but also how to safely and quickly team climb. Essentially how to go from flat on our feet to using da's hip then shoulder (or each others) to get the smaller person up, then how to anchor ourselves safely and work getting others up and over too. One way or another, if a herd goes nutty, we were taught to get the hell outta dodge. From climbing a wall to tucking myself up into a crawlspace out of range of the hysteria, not being in the crush is vital. Being able to climb quickly and safely has gotten me out of several bad crowd situations over the years – first in getting out of the crowd but also, most folks don't glace UP when looking for fellow adults.

  10. Crowds are my own special hell. People sometimes talk me into events with crowds, and I always regret it. I always think about disaster scenarios. Good to see some tips.

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