Planning process prepared Houston’s Astroworld festival for disaster, report says

Inadequate planning prevented promoters and public health authorities in Houston from responding quickly to the deadly influx of crowds at the Astroworld Festival on Nov. 5.

A Houston Chronicle report found that pre-planning documents for the event did not address procedures for people crushed by crowds, even though similar events have occurred in recent history.

Zach Despart, a Harris County reporter for the Chronicle, spoke to the Texas Standard about the newspaper’s findings. Listen to the interview in the audio player above or read the transcript below to learn more about what first responders witnessed on the night of the tragedy.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Texas Standard: One of the things the promoters of Astroworld had to put in place was an event operations plan that would explain how the festival would be run, emergency procedures and all that. Have you had the opportunity to review this document and, if so, what stands out?

Zach Despart: We have had the opportunity to review this document. It’s a 56-page plan. The goal is essentially to ensure the safety of festival-goers and to have a smooth operation. We had sent it to a few experts who raised red flags with it.

One of the big issues they had is that the operations plan lists a ton of different types of emergencies you might encounter at a music festival and how to handle them; what he makes no mention of is crowd crushing or crowd compression. And there is a documented history of these kinds of events happening, especially at outdoor festivals where people stand and there are limited barriers to keep them apart.

And yet, did local officials give the green light to this after reviewing the event’s operations plan? Didn’t they spot something missing here?

That’s an excellent question. The contract between Harris County and the festival requires the county to approve the plan of operations, as well as security staffing levels, doctors and other personnel for the festival. The county did not respond to questions about what it approved.

Let’s talk about what really happened the night of. How long were people crushed in front of the scene before the paramedics even realized there was a problem?

We know from reviewing footage of the broadcast concert and speaking with people who were in the crowd at the time that the crowd crush appears to have happened minutes after Travis Scott started his show around 9 p.m. hours on November 5. The first call on the radio traffic for first responders that someone had a breathing or crush type injury happened about 15 minutes later, then the broadcast continued for about an hour after that point. .

What became clear very quickly was that they were overwhelmed. As you know, it’s not uncommon for some people to need medical help at a music festival. We spoke with the CEO of the medical company who was hired to run the show and he said he was there that night and there was a call for cardiac arrest and there had a second one and there was the third in a row, and at that point he was like, oh man, we need some help. It’s about half an hour after the start of the concert.

The Houston Fire Department had set up a command post about a mile from the festival stages. They didn’t have a main role for the festival, but they wanted to be ready to react if needed. They happened to be listening to the radio traffic and they themselves decided to go to the festival as it seemed like things were spiraling out of control. And it was then, around 9:30 p.m., that Houston police, who were already on the scene, said they told festival management that the show had to end early and that festival management was in abeyance. ‘OK. But the show went on for almost 40 minutes after that point, and we just don’t know why it would take so long to take that step.?

There have been many proposed investigations into this tragedy. What’s the latest on this?

The Houston Police Department investigation is ongoing. I imagine there will be many more, especially because of all the civil lawsuits that have been filed. One notable thing is that Harris County had offered to conduct an independent investigation, and a Harris County commissioner, who happened to be a former Houston police officer, blocked that independent investigation and said it was important to support the police service. It is therefore unfortunately an avenue that we are not going to explore.

Louisa R. Loomis