By the late ’70s, Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati had built a reputation for allowing crowds to run way out of control. Fans threw fireworks during a 1976 Yes concert there. The following year, a violent seat-seeking mob rushed a locked entrance before a performance by Led Zeppelin, resulting in 60 arrests and numerous injuries.
Blame for these incidents fell on the Coliseum’s general-admission ticket policy, known as festival seating. The first-come, first-sit scheme was used at other rock arenas with relative safety, but in the Coliseum it seemed to bring on stampedes at the entrances. A tragedy seemed inevitable, and then the inevitable happened. On Dec. 3, 1979, while waiting to get into a concert by the Who, 11 fans were crushed to death and dozens injured.
More than 18,000 people had begun assembling as early as 1:30 for the 8 o’clock show. The crowd jockeyed for position all afternoon; pushed from behind, fans in front became an undulating tide. At 7:05, after the Who had finished their sound check, a paltry 5 of the Coliseum’s 134 doors were opened, and the real trouble began. The 25 police officers assigned to keep order were helpless since only the Coliseum’s security staff had the authority to open more doors.
For nearly an hour, people were jammed together up against the glass doors, unable to move or, in some cases, even breathe. At 7:30, partway through the bedlam, a police lieutenant asked the Coliseum manager to open additional doors but was told there were no more ticket takers available — only nine had been hired — and to enlist ushers would be a union violation. Even as the Who, unaware of the horrors outside, began their concert, ambulances were arriving to tend to the more than two dozen injured and the 11 people who died in the stampede or suffocated in the crowd.
The tragedy’s effect on rock and on the Who was immediate and long-lasting. A ban on festival seating started in Cincinnati and quickly spread to other rock venues; today the policy is virtually extinct. The Who, stunned when told after the show about the deaths and injuries, dedicated the next night’s concert, in Buffalo, to the victims and sent flowers to their funerals.
Like the other members of the Who, Pete Townshend was affected by the disaster. A few days afterward he said, ”If it had happened inside, I would never have played again.”
Time Capsule: December 3, 1979
Kurt Vonnegut’s Jailbird captivated readers, while film fans experienced ”the horror” of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. The Knack’s ”My Sharona” ruled the radio, and 60 Minutes clocked in as TV’s top story.