In June 2017, an exploding firecracker sparked panic as 30,000 fans watched a soccer match in Turin, Italy. The crush that followed killed three people and injured 1,672.
More than 700 people died in 2015 during the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Mina, Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Officials said panic ensued when two large groups of pilgrims arrived at the same street from different directions and created a bottleneck.
Witnesses said it was a case of too many people pushing and shoving on a small suspension bridge that caused a deadly situation during the Khmer Water Festival celebrations in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in 2010. The death toll was 347.
In Germany in 2010, people on their way to the Love Parade, a popular music festival, packed together into an underground passage. More than 651 were injured, and 21 people died in the overcrowded tunnel.
In the U.S., it was a rush for first-come, first-serve seats at a concert by the British rock band The Who that turned deadly in Cincinnati in 1979. Eleven people lost their lives.
What do all these events have in common? They were crowded, peaceful events that turned deadly. These human stampedes demonstrate that when people panic, deadly chaos can ensue.
Human stampedes can happen when people perceive a threat – like the explosive sound in Turin – and run away from that threat. And they can occur when people anticipate something of value – like a good seat at a concert – and run toward that valuable thing. Deadly human crushes have happened at nightclubs, sporting events, and shopping malls all over the world.
Crowd management experts explain that human stampedes typically begin when people reach a door, wall, or other barrier and slow down or stop. People behind them keep moving, assuming that space will open. When that space doesn’t open up, they begin pushing forward.
Clearly, the best way to survive a human stampede is to avoid crowds altogether. However, that tactic may not always be possible, and we cannot always predict when a situation will turn ugly.
Just as with many situations in life, surviving a human stampede can come down to mental preparation. Here are nine ways to survive a human stampede.
1. Make An Exit Strategy
Whether you are in a crowded building or outside in a packed courtyard, take the time to scan for exits. Keep in mind that the best way out may not be the way you came in. Look for alternative ways out that might be used by fewer people.
2. Follow Your Gut
If you feel uncomfortable in a crowd, pay attention to that instinct and either move to a safer location, or get out of there entirely. This decision can be difficult, particularly if you have traveled a long way or spent a lot of money on tickets, but it might save your life.
3. Stay Calm
Experts say that more people die from lack of oxygen (compressive asphyxiation) in a human stampede than from being trampled. Don’t waste your energy and oxygen by yelling and pushing. Instead, stay focused and resist following a herd mentality.
4. Stay Upright With Your Hands Up
Hold your hands and arms to your chest like a boxer in a match. This position gives you momentum, and it helps protects your vulnerable torso. Don’t bend down to pick up a dropped item — it’s not worth it.
5. Keep Moving
If a crowd of people is surging, it is unlikely that you can withstand their strength. Try to keep moving at the same pace as the crowd.
The exception to this rule is if the group is moving toward a barrier, such as a wall, fence, or any other solid object that you can’t climb up or over. Avoid moving towards one of these chokepoints if at all possible.
6. Move Sideways
Crowd safety expert Paul Wertheimer recommends a technique he calls “the accordion method” for getting out of a dangerous crowd surge. After the crowd pushes forward, there is a brief lull. Wertheimer says to use that pause as your chance to move diagonally between people.
Take a few steps sideways. Wait for the next break. Then take a few more steps until you get to the outer edge of the crowd, where you are less likely to get hurt.
7. Help Each Other
Help someone up by extending your hand, and point with your hands and arms to different possible ways out. A landmark study on crowd behavior led by psychologist John Drury of the University of Sussex found that a key to avoiding tragedy is to help one another in a stampede. According to the study, when people stop to help each other, it decreases everyone’s sense of panic.
8. Seek Shelter
If the present danger is the stampede itself (not a fire or another emergency), look for ways to escape the crowd. If you are indoors, it might be a side stairway or a closet. Don’t forget to look up for a ledge or, if you are outside, it could make sense to climb up a tree or get on top of a vehicle to protect yourself.
9. Guard Your Head
If you should fall, try to get up as soon as possible. If you cannot get up, Wertheimer recommends that you curl up on your side and protect your head with your arms.
One of the interesting things about crowds of people is that their movements follow patterns. Many crowd control experts talk about human groups moving predictably in ebbs and flow like waves. Smart crowd management teams plan for these waves with plenty of entrances and exits, well-marked directions, public address systems, and strict crowd control measures at bottleneck points.
If you find yourself at a crowded event — whether it is a concert, a Black Friday sale, or a peaceful protest — that is not taking these measures into account, you could be in danger. Keep your wits about you and get out of there safely while you still can.