NEW YORK — BETTER planning and communication, say security experts, could almost certainly have prevented the tragic death of nine New Yorkers in a crowd crush at a charity basketball game in Harlem nearly two weeks ago .
It was an event launched with the best of intentions - celebrity rap stars would shoot hoops to benefit the fight against AIDS - that ended in disaster. The legal question of who is most to blame - the uninsured promoters, their student sponsors, the City College of New York, or the several groups handling security that night - is still the subject of hot debate. Three major probes are under way. The city's report is expected tomorrow.
Yet similar tragedies have occurred at other sports events and concerts. Some have taken place during a rush by fans onto the stage or stadium. Others, like the 1979 stampede at a Cincinnati concert of The Who that killed 11 people and the recent New York deaths, involved entrance crowds. Such repetition suggests that key lessons remain to be learned.
One elementary point, experts say, is the need to limit ticket sales to house capacity and to keep those waiting well informed about seating prospects and timing. At the time of the New York incident, some 2,100 people were already inside the gym, about 80 percent of the full bleacher capacity. Another 3,000 to 4,000 ticket holders and buyers were outside.
"The managers of some events oversell, and they can't lose as far as the money is concerned, but everybody else does because of the increased potential for violence," observes Hubert Williams, president of the Washington-based Police Foundation. He says such oversales and the failure to keep those in line informed are the cause of many of the fights that have broken out at movie theaters.
"Preemptive planning is key - nothing should be left to chance," agrees Joel Thirer, director of physical education and an expert on sports violence at the State University of New York at Binghampton. "Security should be such that people without tickets are turned away before they even get close to the building."
Most who turn out for an event expect the process of getting in to take no more than an hour or so, experts say. Event managers should open enough entrances and hire enough ticket takers and security guards to make that expectation work. Only one door of a four-door entrance at the bottom of a stairwell was open for the New York gym crowd.
"You can't just have one little spigot where the people drip into the arena one at a time," says Robert Wiatt, director of security and university police at Texas A&M University. "You have to get people in fast.... People are very orderly in a lengthy line if they know they're entering at a reasonable rate and that nobody else is getting ahead of them who isn't entitled."
Security guards also need up-to-date information. In the New York case, promoter Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs has said city police were unresponsive to his requests to tell people to leave when the crowd grew larger than expected. Emergency medical workers also say the police, who are supposed to accompany them in any dangerous situation, did not go into the gym with them. Police claim they could not enter the building without the permission of college officials and say that private guards had primary respons ibility for security. The college had contracted with Pinkerton Security for 20 guards, while Mr. Combs hired 27 "X-Men," a black Muslim group. Both private security firms deny any responsibility for the tragedy.
One major problem, says the Police Foundation's Mr. Williams, is that security forces usually watch for specific crimes such as robberies and muggings. They must also be alert to developing crowd behavior such as the "herd mentality" and the "stampede effect," he says. Sometimes, strong measures may be needed, such as ringing a stadium field with officers to protect it from a mob.
"A police show of force can often prevent use of force," says Williams, police chief of Newark, N.J., during the riots of the late 1960s. "People tend not to act in a violent way when the odds are overwhelmingly against them."
The tragedy also underscores the need for closer supervision of students or outsiders who use college facilities at a time when many colleges are allowing students more freedom. City College's Evening Student Government organization was acting as the contractor for the rap stars.
David Stormer, past president of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Officers, says all contracts with performers and promoters at Pennsylvania State University (where he is assistant vice president for safety) keep the control of house lights and the public address system in university hands. "We can always bring up the house lights if something goes awry," he says.
"You don't just turn an event over to somebody and say, 'Here are the keys to the gym - see you Monday morning, agrees Dr. Thirer.