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The Who Tragedy in Ohio: A First Hand Rememberance

My First Hand Remembrances of the Who Concert Tragedy 30 Years Ago Today


By Derek Halsey


It is hard to believe that it has been 30 years since the tragedy of The Who concert in Cincinnati on December 3rd, 1979. On that tragic night 11 young folks lost their lives while simply going to a rock concert. Many of the reports and stories at the time and since have described it as a "stampede," but that wasn't really the case. I know because I was there.

I attended a concert earlier that same year that gave hints of the tragedy that was to come. Because of what is known as 'festival seating' at concerts, as in whoever gets in first gets the best seats and the best positions in front of the stage, a sold out rock concert could be chaotic back in the day. Led Zeppelin performed in Cincinnati in the summer of 1979 and before that show I found myself in the middle of the crowd waiting for the gates to open. That was when I became more than a little worried about what was going on with the crush of people around me.

I showed up early to the Zep gig, and the surge of the waiting crowd outside got so bad that my feet were lifted up off the ground on more than one occasion. People were coming close to passing out around me, and somebody climbed up onto the roof above the arena doors and tried to get the crowd to back up and relieve the pressure, but with little success. But, no one was hurt badly that evening and once we were inside Led Zeppelin rocked the house.
Move forward to December 3rd, 1979. The Who concert that night was sold out and myself and a group of friends arrived at the venue a little late. I was living at an old farmhouse with three of my high school buddies at the time. It was a pretty cool bachelor party house back then and we were all in our very early 20's. Three of the four of us made the trek to see the concert at a downtown venue known as the Cincinnati Coliseum.

As we walked up on the crowd that night, the noise level was loud and the sound chaotic. We looked at the crowd trying to get into the main doors out front and started to wade into the fray. We began to assess the situation to try and figure out our next moves, deciding where to meet up later if we got split up, which looked probable. Apparently a member of The Who overslept and they had to do their sound check much later than usual. The crowd outside was already waiting for the doors to open by the time the sound check began and they could hear the loud-as-hell full speaker music going on inside. That is when the trouble began.

The combination of the band playing loudly inside and the late nature of the delay made some fans think that they were missing the beginning of the show. The surge was on. Eventually the doors were unlocked. The problem was, the doors to the building opened outward and the crush of the people kept the doors from being opened fully. It was soon evident that people were being crushed and were in real danger. People began to panic and many who managed to make it through the gauntlet were trying to rescue those in harms way just outside the doorways.

As we waded into the crowd, we heard some loudspeakers on the north side of the Coliseum blaring announcements that told folks to come around to that side of the venue and enter via the open doors there. For whatever reasons of fate, we decided to abandon our assault into the main crush by the front doors and we made are way around to the doors on the north side of the building and went into the show. As we made our move and walked around the main crowd, you could hear the loud shouts and noises. It was mayhem, but we just thought it was the typical rock concert rowdiness. Due to our detour, we had no idea of the tragedy that was unfolding only yards away.

Finally we got inside through the side doors and found some seats and started to party. The Who were their usual rockin' selves and put on a great show. During the concert a younger brother of a friend of ours found us in the seats. He was working a soda stand at the concert and he told us that he heard a rumor that five people had died outside the Coliseum. He was a youngster and we dismissed it as simply a goofy rumor, and then we asked a few people around us if they had heard the same thing, and no one had.
When The Who came out for an encore you could see that they were not as lively as they were during the rest of the concert. We did not know this at the time, but they were told in-between the end of the concert and the encore that something terrible had happened, and that they would be given the details afterwards so go ahead and finish this concert quickly. After two brief songs, the show ended.

After the show was over, we walked out through the front doors of the Coliseum and found ourselves bathed in the bright lights of multiple television news crews. By that time all the bodies had been removed and there was no sign that anything bad had happened anywhere. We just thought they were filming the audience leaving the sold out show for the evening news broadcasts. We got to our car and turned on a cassette tape that we already had in the console and we listened to that, never turning on the radio. In other words, we still did not know what had happened until we pulled into the driveway of the farmhouse.

When we finally made it home and pulled into the driveway, all of a sudden the roommate that was left behind comes running out saying, "Wow, man, am I glad to see you guys. Thank God you're alright!" We were like, "Huh? What the hell are you talking about?" It was then that he told us what happened. But, that was only the beginning of the show’s aftermath that we would experience that night.

Apparently the news of 11 young people dying on the ground outside of the Who concert in Cincinnati was announced in real time on the Monday Night Football telecast, a broadcast seen around the world. This was 1979, so there was no such thing as a cell phone. As a result, we could not be contacted in any way while at the concert or on the road. No one who knew us had any idea whether we had survived the show or not, if we were alive or dead.

The second the announcement of the deaths was made on ABC TV that night, a lot of our relatives reached for the phone. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that we would be at a rock concert like that, and the worry sank in. And, it was hours after the show before we got home, so our roommate didn’t know what to say to the many worried callers other than we had not shown up yet. Tick tock. The phone rang off the hook as relatives and friends called in from all over the country.

Once back at the house, all three of us had to sit down and go down a list of phone calls to return. One after another we heard the sound of family and friends sounding relieved, telling us that the worst had crossed their minds, and that they were glad to simply hear our voices after those hours of not knowing. You have to remember; even the sound of the phone ringing as we called them back could have meant bad news.

I talked to friend of mine a few days later that was in the thick of the tragedy that night. She was right in the middle of the crush, and she told me that she thought she was going to die. She was crying her eyes out as it happened, stuck in the middle of the constant crush. She had been holding onto her boyfriend’s hand, grabbing on for dear life, but his hand slipped from her as the mayhem got worse. At one point she stepped on something on the ground and she freaked out, praying that it was not a person. She looked down and was relieved to see it was only a sleeping bag. But once she got inside and found her boyfriend and caught her breath, she turned around to see the bodies on the ground with folks frantically trying to perform CPR on 11 young people as they lay on the concrete.

The young fans that died that night were as follows;

Jacqueline L. Eckerle, 15 (went to the concert with her friend, Karen Morrison)

Karen L. Morrison, 15 (see above)

Bryan J. Wagner, 17 (went to the concert with his brother)

Peter Douglas Bowes, 18

David J. Heck, 19 (went to the concert with a friend)

Stephen McGhee Preston, 19 (went to the concert with friends)

Phillip K. Snyder, 20

Connie Sue Burns, 21 (mother of two; went to the concert with her husband)

Walter H. Adams, Jr., 22

James Theodore Warmoth, 21

Teva Rae Ladd, 27 (mother of two)

 

 

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