Anatomy of a stampede: What exactly happens before a crowd goes berserk

MUMBAI: Stampedes are a recurring form of man-made disasters. Be it religious gatherings, tourism centres or just a railway station, the elements of a stampede remain the same: huge crowds, narrow passages, a rumour, panic and then disaster.

The tragedy at the Elphinstone Road railway station in Mumbai on Friday followed the same course. 

Experts have identified and recorded the situations that lead to stampedes. The website of the South Asian Disaster Knowledge Network explains the causes of a stampede with a ‘FIST’ model, an acronym for Force, Information, Space and Time.

The force of the crowd or the crowd pressure, information to which a crowd reacts, the space involved in the incident and time duration of the incident are the four factors that need to be controlled to avoid a stampede, experts say.

The police commissioner of Nashik, Dr Ravindra Singhal handled the Kumbh Mela at Nashik in 2003, when 48 people lost their lives in a stampede. Based on his experience, he wrote a book recording his observations on controlling crowds and avoiding stampedes. Here are 10 principles to control crowds and prevent stampedes.

1. Keep the crowd moving

This is the first principle of crowd control. Just keep everyone moving. For that to happen, the entry and exit gates must be kept free of any obstacles. Regular announcements, volunteer guides and signage help in that. The stampede at the Godavari Pushkarams in Rajahmundry in Andhra Pradesh in 2015 happened exactly because there were bottlenecks at the exit. The Mumbai stampede happened because several commuters stopped to stay out of the rain.

2. No surprises

Ensure that a streaming crowd does not confront a surprise. Even a person in the moving crowd stopping to tie his shoelaces can block the flow and lead to a stampede.

3. Crowd density

When eight people are pressed together and each has less than 1.5 sq. ft. to move in, it means that the crowd has reached a critical density level. At this point there is no space between people. In such a situation, shock waves, which cause individuals to move involuntarily, travel though the crowd.

4. Shock wave in a crowd

Crowds exert a tremendous force. Virtually all crowd deaths are due to compressive asphyxia and not trampling. Evidence of bent steel railings after fatal crowd incidents show the strength of this force. These forces are due to pushing and the domino effect of people leaning against each other.

5. Craze

Experts who have studied crowd mentality in a stampede divide them into two types: one type is called ‘craze’ where the crowd is attracted to one single object. For example, the 2014 incident in Mumbai in which 18 people died in a stampede after the death of Dawoodi Bohra leader Muhammad Syedna at Malabar Hill.

6. Panic

These are crowds that are running away from an object. For example, in the 1981 stampede at Qutub Minar in Delhi, 45 people died when the crowd tried to run towards the door after an electricity failure.

7. How crowds think

The study of stampedes underlines the fact that people are less wise whilst in the crowd.

8. Balance of the crowd

As crowds can react in a berserk manner even the slightest provocation can topple the balance of the crowd.

9. Crowds can’t handle situations

The crowds that have lost their balance are unable to handle the situation.

10. Just me and mine

When a crowds goes through the stages described above, just ahead of the disaster all social bonds break away and people start thinking only themselves, their own existence. This leads to loss of control over their actions and ultimately leads to a stampede.

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