How to Survive a Crowd Crush

By Suzanne Wiley

A crowd is when a group of people gather for the same reason. Crowds become dangerous when there is six or more people per one square meter of space.
A crowd is when a group of people gather for the same reason.

The holidays are here. Parades, pictures with Santa, tree lightings, holiday concerts and shopping the big sales will all draw crowds. Depending on the size of the crowd and where the event is located, even the merriest of events can turn deadly. There is always the possibility for things to turn sour any time a large group of people gathers. Though it happens more often overseas, there is a long history of thousands of people being killed during a crowd crush. A 2008 stampede demonstrated how crazy things can get on Black Friday when thousands rushed the closed doors of a New York Walmart. A 34-year old temporary worker was knocked down by the crowd and asphyxiated.


What is a Crowd?

A crowd is a group of people gathering for the same reason. Crowds form for all different reasons—religious ceremonies, protests, concerts, speeches, festivals and special events—just to name a few.

A high-density crowd is defined as a gathering of six or more people in one square meter of space. This becomes a dangerous threshold where you may lose your ability to move and even breathe. The force of a high-density crowd can be impossible to control or fight back against. The pressure created from a high-density crowd can reach up to 1,000 pounds and has proven to bend steel.

What is a Crowd Crush?

Retired New York and New Jersey Port Authority research engineer and forefather of crowd study, John Frunin, says, “At occupancies of about seven persons per square meter the crowd becomes almost a fluid mass. Shock waves can be propagated through the mass sufficient to lift people off of their feet and propel them distances of 3 meters (10 ft.) or more. People may be literally lifted out of their shoes, and have clothing torn off. Intense crowd pressures, exacerbated by anxiety, make it difficult to breathe.” According to the New York Times, “Many stampede fatalities result not from trampling but from compressional asphyxia, in which people are squeezed to death upright or in a pileup.”

The worst British sporting disaster happened at a soccer match in 1989. The crowd crush killed 96 people and injured 766.
A crowd crush at a 1989 soccer match in the U.K. killed 96 people and hurt 766.

Crowd crushes aren’t usually malicious. They occur mostly at concerts, religious festivals and sporting events—all places people chose to be to see or experience something they want to. There are multiple reasons why a crowd will stampede causing a crowd crush or crowd collapse. Sometimes it’s panic or fear, other times it’s a rush to get a good seat or spot, and in Black Friday madness—to get a perceived bargain for a highly desirable product. A crowd study conducted by Harvard and Uppsala Universities found that crowds move to a “common point of interest.” Crowds begin pushing forward when caught up in excitement, anticipation, fear or anger. Either way, the movement of a high-density crowd can literally kill you.

What Should You do if You Find Yourself Stuck in a Crowd?

The best way to stay safe in a mob is by avoiding crowds altogether; however, most of us enjoy attending concerts, special events, festivals and fairs. Any time you go out in public to attend an event, you run the risk of running into a crowd. Instead of becoming a homebody, follow these crowd safety tips developed by safety and crowd experts.

If you get stuck in a crowd crush, move into a boxer's stance with your hands up close to your chest. Allow yourself room to breathe.
If you get stuck in a crowd crush, move into a boxer’s stance with your hands up close to your chest. Allow yourself room to breathe.
  1. Before getting to the venue, mall, theater or fairgrounds—do your research. Request a map of the property. Identify narrow passageways, points of bottlenecks and all possible exits.
  2. Wear closed-toed shoes and make sure your shoe strings are tightly tied.
  3. Knowing you will be in a potential crowd, don’t carry anything and keep your hands and arms free. Keep personal belonging and valuables in front of you. Your wallet, keys and cell phone can go in your front pockets. If you carry a backpack, wear it in the front and if you carry a purse or messenger bag, cross the strap over your body and sling the bag in front of you.
  4. Once you arrive, take a note of your surroundings. Don’t just locate the emergency exits but notice alternative escape routes.

During a fire at the Station nightclub in Rhode Island during a Great White concert in 2003, 100 people were killed because they were unable to exit the building. Though the building had four exits, most people rushed toward the front door. (Studies have found that we usually attempt to exit the way we entered, causing choke points.) The throng of people rushing caused a crowd collapse. Bodies kept stacking up because those in the back had no idea people were falling in front of them.

  1. Avoid areas where you can get trapped—narrow passageways, doorways and walls are just a few examples.
  2. Once you feel the wave, go with the flow. Pushing or attempting to fight back is useless. Start moving in a diagonal direction toward the edge of the crowd where there are fewer people and you have a chance to escape.

One of the expert witnesses in the Walmart Black Friday death, Paul Wertheimer, (who is one of the top-leading crowd experts) calls this the accordion method.

  1. Make sure you can breathe. Once you feel the slightest pressure of the crowd, put your arms up in towards your chest like you are getting ready to box. Wertheimer says, “To prepare for the crushing and surging, you need to establish, as best as possible, a firm footing and an effective stance. Take a boxer’s stance, one foot in front of another. Keep your hands up to your chest. If they remain at your side, you will lose the use of them and compromise your balance and chest protection, as well.”
  2. Remain calm. Group behavior isn’t rational or responsible. One person panicking can set off the entire group. Keep your wits about you, don’t scream and work on getting yourself out of the situation.
  3. Stay on your feet and help those around you remain steady, as well. If it won’t take you down, pick people up or steady them if they sway or stumble. Everyone pushed up against you needs to stay on their feet, too or they’ll take you down with them.
  4. If you fall, get up as quickly as possible. If you can’t, crawl with the crowd. If that is also impossible, curl up in the fetal position and cover your head, making sure you leave enough room to get air.
  5. If you drop something, don’t stop or bend down to pick it up. Just leave it and keep going.
  6. Most importantly, if people start to close in, get out while you can.

Wertheimer estimates that there are 20,000 to 40,000 crowd-related injuries a year. Don’t become a statistic. Stay focused and stay safe where crowds can form this holiday season.

How do you avoid crowds? Tell others your tips and advice in the comment section.