HOUSTON — Hathim Khan and his friends had been looking forward to Travis Scott and his Astroworld Festival for more than two years.
“I wanted to lose my voice,” said Khan, 21, who with his friends flew to Houston from Orlando for the sold-out show.
“I was ready to break a leg,” said Jesse Marcano, 22.
“If I broke a leg, it was going to be a good thing,” Khan replied.
“Yeah, we would have made Travis proud,” chimed in Liselle Sanchez, 21.
Instead, they found themselves sitting outside a Houston Starbucks on Saturday afternoon trying to figure out what had gone so horribly wrong in the high-energy crowd Friday night, causing it to surge forward toward the stage as Scott was performing.
Eight people, ranging in age from 14 to 27, died that night, and hundreds more were injured. Scott’s set was ultimately cut short, and the second day of the festival was canceled. The rap megastar, event promoters, and police, fire and other officials now face intense criticism and scrutiny over whether they were adequately prepared for the event, which had an estimated 50,000 people, and whether the show should have been stopped sooner.
The buildup to the festival made the tragic events of Friday all the more devastating, many who were there said, as they struggled to make sense of what they witnessed that night.
“I just couldn’t tell it was that bad,” said Audrey Smith, 20. “When I found out, I felt so bad for dancing and having fun with my friends.”
Teens and young adults from around the country had converged in Houston for Scott’s third Astroworld Festival. After last year’s show was canceled, Scott, a Houston native and hometown hero, had promised a return bigger and better than ever. Attendees had shelled out upward of $350 apiece for tickets and the opportunity to “rage out” with their hero. For many, it was their first chance to celebrate and enjoy a life that had been put on hold by the pandemic, and it was months in the making.
Over the last year, Los Angeles teen Julius Tlacuapa juggled virtual high school while working almost full-time at a fast-food restaurant. What helped get him through the difficult days of balancing what he described as his “two lives” was Astroworld, the light at the end of the tunnel.
“I admire Travis Scott for his creativity, his music and how he projects himself into his fans,” said Tlacuapa, 17. “I wanted to see him perform.”
When he’d saved about $2,000, he booked a flight and a hotel room, and bought a two-day ticket to the festival of his dreams. His 29-year-old sister and her wife joined him on the trip.
They arrived at NRG Park at 5 a.m. Friday, Tlacuapa said. It wasn’t long before things took an ugly turn.
By 7 a.m., he said dozens of people in line began hurling chairs and bottles filled with water and urine. Tlacuapa was nearly knocked to the ground when a gallon jug of water came flying through the air. About an hour later, he stood in line in disbelief as he said security officials just watched people storm through the barricades beside him.
Once inside, however, Tlacuapa mostly forgot about the chaos from his long morning. He spent the day drifting between the line for merchandise and the shows — even joining the mosh pit when Don Toliver performed. He threw his hands up and jumped up and down to one of his favorite songs, “After Party.”
“I was having the best time of my life, to be honest,” he said.
That night, he and his family watched Scott perform from the ADA area — which they said was elevated and located toward the back of crowd behind the stage. But their eyes were not on Scott. They were on the ground, where they saw motionless bodies, ambulances trying to make their way through the crowd to reach them and medics desperately performing CPR. People wailed and screamed “help” as the music blared, they said.
Jessica Meneses, Tlacuapa’s sister, began to cry. She had been to 10 concerts this year alone and at least five music festivals in her life, and she said had never seen bodies strewn about the ground like this.
She was angry at the crowd, who she said had been out of control all day. And she was angry at security, who she said had spent the day watching the chaos instead of intervening.
“I feel like all day people were purposefully trying to harm people as a joke,” she said. “And security seemed not to care.”
Tlacuapa, too, was stunned. He had spent months doing research to prepare for his first Astroworld and had steeled himself for the possibility of fights or people passing out from dehydration.
He wasn’t prepared for panicked concertgoers running over each other to escape the crowd — stepping over people whose faces had turned purple.
“Knowing Travis Scott himself and all the hype he created around him, I was prepared for a little bit of everything — except for death,” he said
Tlacuapa and his family spent what should have been the second night of the festival at a makeshift memorial erected on a fence outside of the park, reflecting on what they had seen.
“It was crazy, like people let out all of their rage here,” said Meneses, staring at the candles that had positioned to form the number eight. “It was bad.”
They left right after the concert concluded and immediately posted their tickets for sale, having decided not to return for Day 2 even before it was canceled.
Authorities are investigating what caused the crowd to surge. Scott took the stage around 9 p.m. At a news conference following the mass-casualty event, Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña said, “At approximately 9 o’clock, 9:15, the crowd began to compress toward the front of the stage, and that caused some panic and it started causing some injuries. People began to fall out, become unconscious, and it created additional, additional panic.”
An examination of videos from the night shows several concertgoers tried to scream for help; one climbed a ladder to try to get the attention of camera operators. Ambulances can be seen in the crowd. Scott paused his performance several times, but it’s unclear what he heard or saw.
Dozens of festival attendees interviewed in the days following the incident — most of whom were between the ages of 15 and 30 — said there were times during the day when it was difficult to determine whether the rambunctious energy around them was standard festival behavior or verging on dangerous. The more experienced concertgoers said it was not unusual to see people pass out from dehydration or grow dizzy as the hours passed and more substances flowed.
Gustavo Heidtmann, 17, and his friend attended the three-day Rolling Loud Festival in Miami in July, where Scott headlined Day 2 before a crowd of more than 80,000. Billboard proclaimed: “Travis Scott Continues His Reign as Music’s Ultimate Rager at Miami’s 2021 Rolling Loud Festival.”
For much of Friday, the friends saw nothing especially out of the ordinary. People smoked marijuana, drank beer, and some appeared to be taking hard drugs, which Heidtmann said wasn’t unusual for a music festival. He noticed the crowd was “more agitated” than he expected for artists like Toliver, who he said received a louder and more energetic reaction from the crowd in Houston than when he performed at Rolling Loud.
Heidtmann said the energy around him soured while he was waiting for Scott to perform. A fight broke out between the left and the right sides of the stage, with people on each side chucking beer cans and shoes at the other. He said they started chanting “F--- the other side.”
“I had never seen anything like that before,” he said.
Still, the two decided to stay until the end of the show because they were enjoying the music and figured the energy around them, while excessive, wasn’t lethal.
“It’s kind of normal for people to pass out and go to the barricades. Rolling Loud was the same ordeal,” he said. “So I didn’t think anything was out of the ordinary until I saw it in the news.”
Heidtmann attributed the night’s tragic ending to the hype that had been building since Scott’s Astroworld performance two years ago. He said Scott is a uniquely influential artist with the ability to draw other superstars, like Drake, along with their fans.
“Even me and my friends, our energy was super high thinking about what Travis was going to do, who he would bring out next,” he said.
Heidtmann said he would “100 percent” return for another Astroworld Festival.
In the days after the calamity, concertgoers returned to NRG Park with flowers, signs and Astroworld T-shirts for a memorial that was created. They lingered at the site, staring at photos of the people who died and looking through gaps in the fence at the grounds where just days before they had stood partying.
Izabella Ramirez said she has been racked with guilt since she learned late Friday that people had died at the festival. Ramirez, who is certified in CPR, said she wished she could have helped save people around her.
In that moment, however, the 21-year-old had to fend for herself. Shortly before Scott came onstage, bodies were packed so tight that she couldn’t even lift her arms. All she could do was tilt her head upward and see red lights streaming from the stage. That’s when the panic set in, she said, and she began to fear she would be trampled.
Ramirez said she turned to her boyfriend and told him she needed to get out of crowd. People around her began to shout, “Let her out of here!” before, she said, her boyfriend managed to lift her up and push her over the barricade where a security guard grabbed her and lowered her to the ground. She stayed outside of the mosh pit for the rest of the concert, while her boyfriend remained in the crowd to the left of the stage.
“I knew if I didn’t get out, something bad would happen,” said Ramirez, who lives about 45 minutes outside of Houston.
Still, before learning from a group chat that people had died, Ramirez thought the festival had been fun until Scott’s set. Strangers she met in lines to ride the roller coasters had been nice and welcoming when she told them it was her first time at the festival. “Don’t get scared,” she remembered them saying. “You’re going to have so much fun here.”
But after hearing about the deaths, she started to reflect on early indicators that the festival might spiral out of control. Security guards, she said, told her that they had never seen so many people at the venue. She noticed people hurling cans, and at one point, she saw one hit a girl in the head.
Ramirez also said that throughout the day, multiple people she met were talking about how the day should be extra lively to “celebrate” the festival’s return.
“Because of covid last year, people were just waiting for this,” she said. “Everyone was like, ‘I’m ready to have fun.’ ”