Medical Examiner

What Really Made Astroworld So Deadly

Accounts from the night are disturbing and may not have a clear, single cause.

A huge, tightly packed crowd in front of a stage outside
Astroworld in Houston on Friday. Omar Vega/FilmMagic

As a giant clock ticked down the time to Travis Scott’s performance at Astroworld, the crowd gradually became more and more dense as thousands of fans rushed the stage. That’s when 20-year-old Ian Hoskins said people compressed all around him. It couldn’t have been more than 50 degrees outside on that November night in Houston, but Hoskins was drenched in sweat from the heat of bodies crammed against him. “I had a gut feeling that this was not right,” he said. “This is dangerous. I should leave.”

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But there was no way out. “Everyone is trying to get out as an individual, but you’re moving as a whole,” Hoskins said, referring to the force of the crowd “moving as one” as a powerful ocean. Standing tall at 6-foot-1 and 260 pounds, Hoskins became a human life preserver, desperate to keep those around him from being swallowed by the tide. “I was having people grab my arms and shoulders. At one point I had five or six people grabbing on to me to stay above the crowd.” If someone fell, they’d get trampled.

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Live Nation, the organizer of the festival, stopped the show early, but still 40 minutes after city officials said a “mass casualty event” was underway. At least eight people died at Astroworld, hundreds more were injured, and several more remain in critical care.

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It will take some time for investigators to determine exactly what conditions made Astroworld become so dangerous and deadly, and it could be several weeks to determine the cause of death for those who died. Lawsuits accusing rapper Travis Scott of “encouragement of violence” and negligence are piling up. Scott is no stranger to the law, having pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in 2017 after a show in Rogers, Arkansas, ended in chaos and injuries. Clearly, the performer’s shows fit a pattern of dangerous and crammed crowds.

But in the immediate aftermath of the chaotic event, the police and the media floated a bizarre story about a possible culprit. TMZ reported that a mystery assailant wielding a syringe loaded with drugs was injecting people, causing some to unwittingly overdose. Somehow, this alleged assailant is thought to have set off a panic that triggered a stampede among a crowd of over 50,000 people. This theory purported to explain what sparked the chaos and how otherwise healthy young adults suffered cardiac arrest and died at a music festival.

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The needle-stabbing rumor didn’t stay in the celebrity gossip pages. Hours later, at a press conference, Houston police Chief Troy Finner perpetuated the theory, saying that “one of the narratives” being investigated was that “some individual was injecting other people with drugs.”

The waters became even muddier when CBS News, NBC News, Fox News, the New York Post, and numerous other local outlets amplified and broadcasted that the police chief “confirmed” the needle-prick theory. To be sure, the police chief did no such thing. Rather, he recklessly repeated a rumor that was floating around. It took days before the police chief cleared up the theory he himself spread: On Wednesday, he said that the security guard in question was struck in the head and that “no one injected drugs in him.”

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But the needle-prick story should never have been reported as news. In addition to a lack of evidence—there was no toxicology report verifying the claim—it just doesn’t make basic sense. I’ve been a journalist on the drug beat for several years, and I’ve never talked to a drug user who’s eager to give their drugs away for free to people who don’t want it. It also takes time and concentration to dilute drugs and load them in a syringe, a task that could be quite difficult to do in a dark and crowded space like Astroworld. Then, there’s the matter of actually injecting a moving target square in the neck, unless maybe the assailant is Showtime’s Dexter. In reality, it’s incredibly difficult to inject someone in the neck, especially “stealthily,” said Dr. Ryan Marino, who specializes in addiction and overdose. The needle theory didn’t make sense to Hoskins either, who was in the pit at the concert. “There was no way you could prick somebody with a needle and inject them—you couldn’t even move your arms,” he said. It wouldn’t even explain the fact that some concertgoers went to the hospital for cardiac arrest, as opioid overdoses mostly involve severe respiratory depression. As for what explains the health complications and injuries of Astroworld attendees, Marino told me that young people could easily experience cardiac arrest and asphyxiation due to crowd crush.

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Crowd crush, otherwise known as “crowd surge,” is a horrifying phenomenon that occurs when people are jammed so tight together that they can’t breathe, leading to injury and possible death by compressive asphyxia. In crowd crush, people don’t need to be in an altered state of mind to trample other people to death (not that drugs cause one to do that, anyway). It’s happened before: A gruesome case of crowd crush at Hillsborough stadium in 1989 killed 97 people. “Crowd crush is not a very intuitive thing,” said Claire Zagorski, a paramedic and addiction researcher at the University of Texas at Austin. “When I started paramedic school, I didn’t understand how trampling was deadly. But it’s completely plausible that young, perfectly healthy people could die from it.”

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Zagorski described crowd crush as a critical mass of bodies being compressed until their airways are constricted. “It gets to a point where you no longer have control over your body and it’s no longer up to you where you go, and quickly becomes no longer up to you if you can breathe.” An attorney representing the family of a 21-year-old who died at Astroworld revealed the cause of death to be compressive asphyxiation. “The air was literally slowly squeezed out of him,” the family’s lawyer said, adding that the young man collapsed from cardiac arrest and was trampled.

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So why was the narrative of rogue injectors so appealing and spreadable? One Astroworld attendee told Rolling Stone that she thought authorities were “trying to blame drugs” for a massive disaster and failure of planning. The experts I interviewed also expressed frustration at how the police and media handled the needle-prick story. A needle-wielding stabber triggering chaos at Astroworld was widely believed because it fit neatly into existing drug panics, they said, which center drug users as dangerous and unpredictable.

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When it comes to raising the specter of drugs, multiple experts said police have neither a credible or trustworthy track record. In the midst of an unprecedented overdose crisis, misinformation about drugs—especially opioids like fentanyl—is rampant among law enforcement. For instance, many police officers still believe that touching fentanyl or simply standing near it is deadly and causes officers at the scene of drug busts to “overdose” from mere exposure to the substance. That’s highly unlikely—it’s been thoroughly debunked multiple times by Slate alone—yet police and local news outlets continue to run the same dubious story. “Police really love their fantastical drug narratives that are just really implausible,” Zagorski said.

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Rather than the cause of the chaos being some crazed assailant wielding a syringe, it’s likely that the event organizers were overwhelmed by the crowd and failed to implement crowd control safety measures; this could be out of sheer incompetence or cutting corners to save costs or maybe both. Astroworld was organized and managed by Live Nation, the world’s largest live-events company, which has been linked to hundreds of deaths and injuries and is also being sued for negligence. Hoskins noted that there were only two free water stations, and that lines for everything from water to merch were hours long, indicating there were not enough staff. One security guard at the show said they were woefully understaffed, received little to no training, and when chaos broke out, they stopped working, took off their gear, and disappeared into the crowd.

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The media and police were looking for a bad guy to blame. It’s understandable to reach for a clear cause and source of blame in the aftermath of an unthinkable tragedy; on TikTok, conspiracy theorists suggested that the concert was some kind of satanic ritual led by Scott. But by its very nature, crowd crush is irreducible to a single individual or a few bad apples. It’s a mass phenomenon that occurs when large crowds collide with systemic failures, like poor design and incompetent event management. In some ways, it’s scarier than the drug theory: “The worst thing about this [crowd crush] phenomenon is if you’re looking at the crowd from a safe position, it doesn’t look like anything dangerous is even happening,” he said. “It just looks like people dancing and moving. But if you’re in there, you’re fighting for your life.”

For more on the Astroworld tragedy, listen to this episode of What Next.

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