I was 17 when I went to the infamous Who concert that killed 11 people at the Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati, Ohio. I was a senior at Lakota High School and I remember being super excited that day, not only because I had been anticipating and trading Who lyrics for months with my friend Danny Holt, in a worn down, scuffed up, mini spiral notebook, but because we were going to go down early to get a chance at the best seats possible. Me, yes me! I could be standing right in front of Roger Daltry!
Festival Seating demanded early arrival, and running as fast as you
could once you got inside to get a spot on the floor as close to the band as possible. I went with my boyfriend at the time, although I knew tons of my friends from school were going, and I knew I’d see them once I was down there.
Weirdly, in a way you can only appreciate afterwards, that day before I left for the concert, while I was dressing, I made a decision that I think helped save my life. It was cold that day and I was sporting “cords”, a puffy down vest and a pair of topsiders, but made the fashion choice to go with my Frye boots instead. In the end a very important fashion choice indeed…
When we got down to the stadium it was de rigueur to hang out with your friends, get stoned or throw back some beers, while hanging out in the plaza in front of the “coliseum”, because I had a headache that day I wasn’t imbibing, which probably helped save me too…
I remember it being cold and chilly, sitting on the cement and waiting for a long time for the doors to open.
Around 7:15 that evening people started to line up in front of the main doors, it wasn’t too bad at first because with all the people around it was a little bit warmer than standing in the chilly breeze. Around 10 minutes later it started to get uncomfortable, with a lot of getting smooshed into the person next to you, within another few minutes it started to get ridiculous really quickly…and for 11 of the kids…deadly. Although I had no idea at the time.
You could hear the band (we found out later it was sound check but a lot of folks thought they were missing the show) When you were standing there, there was just people everywhere and you really couldn’t see anything except whatever body part of the person in front or next to you that you were mashed up against. I remember feeling sorry for a couple of really short girls standing next to me…And then it got really scary…
We were packed so tightly, you lost your ability to move, your feet were totally off the floor sometimes and “crowd sway” started happening, and word was “the doors were open” (at least that’s what was being passed back by word of mouth, but there was no way to see for sure) and people kept trying to move forward when there was just nowhere to go. I even lost track of my boyfriend at some point because of the way I was being moved by the crowd.
More and more people were packing into one little area. I started to panic when I was getting squeezed so tightly it was hard to breathe…at one point I remember actually almost standing on this guy’s knee trying to get air (and goddess bless my fashion choice for that extra two inches of heel…Because I never could have been able to be high enough to get air in flat shoes where I was) at that point I was starting to get panicky and I yelled out off of the top of my head “I’m going to be sick!!” and I’ll never know how, but the crowd instinctively moved back just enough so I could start climbing out to the side, which took me a minute or two, but I did it.
And then the weirdest thing happened, I lurched away from the crowd (also trying to cool off because I was soaking wet and sweating) but looked back to see if I could see my boyfriend or anyone I knew, and I was standing in a completely clear area! Everyone else was packed into one dense moving unit…and I was standing, off to the side completely by myself. Then luckily I saw my boyfriend had made it out(I don’t remember how he was able to do it) and we walked about 50 feet down and walked RIGHT IN the next set of doors…and there was NOT ONE person in line there. NOT ONE.
We made it in and down to the floor and the concert was amazingly great…I still had no idea that outside on the cement were 11 dead people.
I remember running into Danny Holt and Randy Cheek and sadly seeing Randy’s face and glasses all smashed and if I remember correctly somebody had lost a shoe… I systematically (although I can’t remember if it was before, during or after the music was playing) ran into all of my friends that I knew were there. We traded some “Man that was some kind of crazy!!” stories but still no word of anybody dying…
It wasn’t til after I was out in the car and turned on the radio that I had heard what actually happened. And it was beyond chilling… In a nano-second I realized how dangerous and deadly it was standing in front of those doors. At the time I was being squished in the crowd I had NO IDEA that I was a mere 2 inches…one pair of Frye boots…One spur of the moment ” I’m going to be sick” away from actually not living the rest of my life….
On the way home, (in that long ago “time before cell phones”) I stopped at a phone booth and called my Mom and Dad to let them know I was alive…
I remember crying on the way home in the car, and wondering if anyone of the people killed was someone I knew. But ironically I also remember being slightly pissed that the decision was made after the event that they were getting rid of festival seating for good.
I believe it was not the band’s fault and remember feeling very sorry for them at the time. But I believe the coliseum’s decision not to open the doors earlier, not to realize the severity of the situation and not take quick action by redirecting people to the other doors…was the true reason for those kid’s deaths.
Were further lives saved by that decision? I don’t think there’s a way to ever know for sure.
But what I do know is this; I am glad to be here today to tell the story, even though it’s a terrible story to have to relive. I still get nervous in crowds and have claustrophobia issues and I always know where the exits are whenever I am in a crowded place.
AND I still love the Who just as much as I did then.
I really wish I still had the notebook that Danny and I used to trade back and forth….