NEW YORK, DEC. 29 -- There were too few security guards and police at a star-studded charity event Saturday night to contain a frustrated, locked-out crowd, according to officials and witnesses. The throng swelled to hurricane force, burst through glass doors, swept down a staircase and collapsed in a heap of broken and smothered bodies.
Eight people were killed and 29 injured in the stampede down the stairwell leading to a basement gymnasium at the City College of New York in Harlem. All the dead, ranging in age from 15 to 28, were asphyxiated, "squeezed from front to back" in the stairwell, chief medical examiner Charles S. Hirsch said today.
The fans had come to see a lineup of celebrities from the rap music world play basketball to benefit AIDS education, an event billed as the "Heavy D and Puff Daddy Celebrity Charity Game." Among the scheduled players were Big Daddy Kane, Ed Lover, Michael Bivins of Bell Biv DeVoe, and members of the group Run-DMC. The game was called off.
Although police today said that judging from videotapes shot from the bleachers, the Holman Gymnasium was jammed with as many as 2,000 people beyond its legal capacity of 2,730, City College officials said that was not the case.
"The gymnasium was not packed," said City College spokeswoman Rita Rodin. "There was room."
In addition, some witnesses inside the gym described empty bleachers and a comfortably sized crowd that was polite and orderly until the chaos began.
Outside, however, the crowd was growing unruly. And some fans, who began arriving for the scheduled 6 p.m. game as early as 2 p.m., said they were shocked to see so few security personnel to manage the bulging throng. As many as 700 people arrived without tickets, police said.
When the crowd broke through glass exterior doors, it surged with such force that it bent a lamppost in the rush to enter the building's foyer and hurry down the stairwell to the gym. Doors between the stairwell and the gym that had been closed were opened too late to relieve the pressure of the scores of people on the stairs. When the doors finally opened, people tumbled into the gym over the bodies of those who had been crushed.
"At Madison Square Garden when there's a concert, the cops come in the hundreds, on motorcycles, in cars, in vans -- like a parade of cops," said Lori Grant, 16, student at John Dewey High School in Brooklyn. "Here, I only saw one cop, and only one cop car outside."
When the doors opened at 5 p.m., two lines stretched from the gym building, one extending nearly a block away to a stone arch at the campus entrance. But security guards admitted people five at a time so they could be frisked. After waiting in the chilly afternoon, the throng grew mean and impatient.
"The crowd was big, and it was uncontrollable," said Randy Jones, 30, of the Bronx. "They just kept pushing and pushing. . . . While a lot of this was happening, there was no police here at all."
City College's Rodin said the college is responsible for security when an event is held on campus and that all arrangements for the Saturday night game were handled by chief of security Charles Delaney, who called for police reinforcements when he arrived on campus at 3:30 p.m. By 4:10 p.m., one police sergeant and 10 officers had arrived, Rodin said. Delaney again called the nearby 26th Precinct, and by 4:50 p.m., five sergeants and 50 police officers had joined 30 Pinkerton guards acting as campus security.
Chief of Patrol Mario Salvaggi today acknowledged that Delaney had called for police reinforcements, but police spokesmen could not say how many police ultimately arrived. Salvaggi said police tried to organize an orderly line.
The game's sponsors, an organization called the Evening Student Government and radio station KISS-FM, which publicized the event, were not responsible for security, Rodin said. However, the student group had invited members of the Fruit of Islam, a Muslim group that frequently provides security for community events, who were helping to frisk the crowd and to take tickets.
Witnesses, however, said they saw few Fruit of Islam members, easily recognizable by their dark suits and colorful bow ties. One witness said he saw only one Fruit of Islam guard tumble down the stairwell into the gym.
"You cannot have an event like this in Harlem without those Muslims," said Oscar Davis, 32, of the Bronx. "Forget the police. They can't do nothing. The people in Harlem respect the Muslims. For this thing they needed the whole mosque."
So many people rushed to get inside the gymnasium that they created a human wedge pressing on the glass doors and walls. "Everyone was so close together, you felt you could not breathe because of the weight of people pressing on your back," said Grant, the high school student.
"The rock stars were coming in and out, and that might have added to the chaos," said Rodin, making an observation shared by witnesses.
Around 7 p.m., that crush burst through the locked door, sending glass shards flying, and people streamed into the building's lobby, witnesses said. At that, a miniskirted ticket-taker who presided over the cash box jumped up and ran down the stairs leading into the gym, where people had previously been allowed in only five at a time, they said.
With the ticket-taker inside the gym, organizers closed the doors to the stairwell and kept them closed for as long as 15 minutes, many witnesses said. Meanwhile, the throng that had burst into the foyer flooded into the stairwell and pressed against the doors, "like sardines," Jones said.
When the doors were finally opened, several women who had fainted were extricated and brought onto the gym floor, witnesses said. Then the pileup in the stairwell burst through the doorway, as people tumbled over each other or lay trapped under the growing human heap.
Moments later, someone announced over the public address system that three people had died just a few feet away, that the game was canceled and that people should clear the area. Frightened fans began another stampede, hastily trying to leave through the same door and stairwell already jammed with the injured, "though there were other doors," Rodin said.
The first Emergency Medical Service (EMS) workers who arrived at about 7:18 p.m. encountered a wall of humanity. "We had to break through the crowd when we reached downstairs," said EMS worker Allan Melendez. "Picture an avalanche with people just trampling on top of each other, people being squashed through doors, banged into door frames."
Said medic Joe DeSantis: "I had a guy with a broken neck, and I had to haul him over close to the wall to avoid both of us being trampled."
Police and college officials today said there were no signs of gunfire in the gymnasium and observed that some who thought they heard gunfire might have heard breaking glass.
Police identified the five dead men as Darrin A. Brown, 28; Yule Clayton Dargan, 23; Leonard Nelson, 17, and Dirk Swain, 20, all of the Bronx, and Jaball Rainey, 15, of Manhattan. Two of the three women who died were identified as Charise Ann Noel, 26, of Brooklyn, and Sonya Williams, 20, of New Rochelle. The eighth victim, a woman in her 20s, has not yet been identified, police said.
Outside the gym late Saturday night, police showed photographs of the dead to family members whose loved ones had not yet returned home. One man, shown a picture of a young woman, her face frozen in a grimace, fell on the ground in grief. A woman wailed, "They trampled my son."
Marilyn Laverty, a publicist for Dwight "Heavy D" Myers, said of the rapper: "He's a spiritual person, and I think he's devastated by this." She said Heavy D plans to start a fund to assist the victims' families and may hold a benefit concert.