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How human stampedes, like the one near Mecca, turn deadly

A stampede among Muslim worshippers kills more than 700 people at the height of the hajj pilgrimage in the holy city of Mecca. (Video: Jenny Starr/The Washington Post)
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On Thursday, a stampede near the holy city of Mecca left more than 700 people dead, with hundreds more injured and the death toll still rising. The stampede, which occurred during the peak of the annual hajj pilgrimage, is just the latest in a regular string of such events at the site — but it's the deadliest one in 25 years.

It's hard to imagine how a crowd — especially one gathered for a peaceful religious rite — can turn so deadly. But the phenomenon is so common that experts in crowd management are consulted for most highly trafficked events.

[What if the pope’s Mass turns into mass chaos? A crowd management scientist weighs in.]

While many researchers focus on how to prevent these so-called stampedes by keeping spaces from getting over-crowded (read more about that here), there's been very little research on what happens once a stampede starts — or why, exactly, they begin.

Tragedy on the hajj: They fell ‘like dominoes’

Muslim pilgrims gather around the victims of a stampede in Mina, Saudi Arabia during the annual hajj pilgrimage on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2015. Hundreds were killed and injured, Saudi authorities said. The crush happened in Mina, a large valley about five kilometers (three miles) from the holy city of Mecca that has been the site of hajj stampedes in years past. (AP Photo) (AP)

Deadly stampedes have marred political rallies, music festivals, sports games and religious events all over the world.

In 1989, in one of the worst tragedies in soccer history, nearly 100 people died in Sheffield, England as crowds pressed into Hillsborough Stadium for a match.

In 2005, a stampede on a bridge across the Tigris River in Baghdad killed more than 960 people when rumors about a coming suicide bomb attack caused panic among pilgrims heading toward a shrine. At the time, it was the greatest single-day casualty toll since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq two years earlier.

And in 2010, a holiday celebration in Phnom Penh, Cambodia left at least 353 trampled to death after a suspension bridge began swaying and thousands of revelers tried to flee.

That same year, a review of all available literature on stampedes found that, despite efforts, these incidents are on the rise. But the researchers noted that little was known about the actual triggers for these events. First responders, they noted, were rightly focused on finding and treating the injured, not on taking detailed notes of their observations of the stampede.

“International health organizations have to recognize that this is an important type of disaster,” Edbert Hsu, associate professor of emergency medicine at Johns Hopkins, said in a statement at the time. “If they made it a protocol to send someone to a trampling disaster quickly to see what happened, we would have detailed reports we could use to compare and contrast. Without [those reports], we won’t really understand what we’re dealing with.”

[Stampede near Saudi holy city kills more than 700 on hajj pilgrimage]

In an email to The Post, crowd safety and risk analysis specialist G. Keith Still explained that actual human "stampedes" are rarely observed. The incidents that members of the public refer to as stampedes are quite different from the animal equivalent, and most could be more accurately referred to as crowd crushes.

"What this appears to be is a crowd crush as a result of two way flow in confined space," Still explained. A compression -- not a stampede.

Mechanically, these crowd crushes are tragically simplistic: Once people are pushed tightly against one another (about 7 people per 10 square feet of space, according to one study) it's vital that those in the front keep moving as quickly as those behind them. Otherwise, the people in the back — unable to see the front of the crowd — will move forward seeking more space, assuming that those in the front will continue to move to make way for them. If for some reason the paces become mismatched — because something is blocking the front of the group, or a rumor is spreading in the back that people are being crushed, causing folks to speed up — the front of the group gets squeezed, sometimes producing enough force to crush people where they stand. 

"The image I use in a workshop is of an egg being pushed back into a chicken," Still said.

It's likely that the most deadly crowd crushes begin with one or a handful of deaths, caused by the sheer force of the tightly-packed group, that then cause mass panic. Smaller crushes may not be fueled by "panic" at all — people can be crushed by the weight of those around them without anyone consciously surging forward. In fact, experts have argued that blaming the behavior of "the crowd" is a mistake, since most crushes can probably be boiled down to the physical limits of their location. Even crushes or stampedes that occur at rowdier events, like soccer games, Black Friday sales or music festivals, are more likely due to physical strain than they are to any specific human behavior.

Still, who previously studied the specific crowd movements during the pilgrimage to Mecca in order to provide crowd management guidance, said that it was difficult to identify what exactly happened to the crowd on Thursday. But he doesn't think there was necessarily a great panic.

"[This incident] sounds like a compression from two opposing flows rates exceeding the safe capacity of the system," Still explained. "Once that starts, it's already too late to stop the incident escalating."

But when people do get panicked, it certainly doesn't help. In a tightly packed crowd, we're victims of our own biology. The typical "fight or flight" response, where one feels a surge of adrenaline, is anything but helpful. If the thousands of people vying for space could be calm and collected, crowd crushes at this magnitude simply wouldn't occur. But faced with death, most will be slave to a racing heartbeat and hyperventilation — and an urge to run for safety at any cost.

To prevent crushes like the one that happened on Thursday, Still and researchers like him work on predicting the movement that a crowd will want to take. “It’s all about math, management and psychology,” he told The Post in an earlier interview on crowd management. When individuals are participating in a religious ceremony, crowd managers need to bear in mind the speed and direction that they're likely to move in, based on the goal of the gathering.

"Unless you can facilitate that, you end up creating behaviors that are frustrated,” he said. And those frustrated behaviors can send shock waves through a tightly packed crowd.

In the modern world, it's more possible than ever for massive crowds to gather. People can fly in from all over the world to join in a religious ceremony or catch a glimpse of a leader. And for now, crowd crushes remain a horrifying possibility at every such gathering.

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