Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Ivory Coast 'stampede'

It's still unclear what caused the New Year's Eve stadium tragedy in the Ivory Coast that has so far killed at least 61 people, but the media are already speculating as to what happened. A report by the BBC has suggested two possible explanations: first, that a group of youths with knives were robbing people, which caused crowd 'panic' and a subsequent stampede, and secondly that the security forces mismanaged the situation as people left the stadium and allowed a fatal crowd crush to develop.

We need to find out more information about this tragedy, but I find the second explanation much more plausible, and I would guess that what may have happened was that a surge of people leaving the stadium met another crowd in the city centre going in a different direction creating a fatal crush. I would also predict that the majority of fatalities would be due to asphyxiation rather than being trampled by others.

There are some very rare situations where densely packed crowds move quickly to escape a threat, and if someone falls over, a domino effect can happen (where other crowd members topple over people on the ground). This happened in the Bethnal Green station tragedy in wartime London in 1943, where 173 people died as they were going down the stairs to the undergound to shelter from an air-raid. However, this usually happens because people are not physically able to stop themselves becaue of the crowd pressure, and if people are able to help each other, they will do so (Johnson, 1987).  A paper I recently wrote (Cocking, 2013) looked at what happens when crowds scatter in the face of Police attacks. I argued that rather than people 'panicking' as they fled mounted and/or baton charges, they actually showed consideration for others and co-operated where possible (such as picking up people who fell over), and tended to become more psychologically united as a result (rather than dispersing).
On a wider point, I think we should avoid using terms such as 'panic' and 'stampede' to describe tragedies like these, as they rarely reflect what happens in mass emergencies. Furthermore, the idelogical baggage that they represent (that crowds are inherently 'irrational', and so in some way to blame for any disasters) also hinders proper investigation of what  actually happened, and may delay or obscure the proper accountability of those who are responsible for such tragedies by not taking crowd safety mismanagement seriously. This was apparent with recent revelations about the Hillsborough disaster, where it took over 23 years for the truth to emerge that fans were not responsible for the tragedy, amid a catalogue of lies and cover-ups over what really happened.

Cocking C. (2013) Crowd flight during collective disorder- a momentary lapse of reason? Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling

Johnson, N. R. (1987b). Panic at ‘The who concert stampede’: An empirical assessment. Social Problems, 34, 362–373.

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