Today, Dec. 3, 2019, marks the 40th anniversary of the deadly concert by The Who in Cincinnati. On that heartbreaking night, 11 young people lost their lives while simply going to a rock concert. Many of the reports and stories at the time and since have described it as a "stampede," but that wasn't really the case.
I know because I was there.
I had attended a Led Zeppelin concert in Cincinnati two years earlier that gave hints of the disaster that was to come. Because of what is known as "festival seating" at concerts, as in whoever gets in first gets the best seats and the best positions in front of the stage, a sold-out rock concert could be chaotic back in the day.
When Led Zep performed in Cincinnati in the summer of 1977, before that show I found myself in the middle of a surging crowd outside the venue waiting for the doors to open. The crush of humanity was so ominous that my feet were lifted up off the ground on more than one occasion. People around me were coming close to passing out when somebody climbed up onto the roof above the arena doors trying to get the crowd to back up and relieve the pressure, but with little success. Fortunately, no one was hurt badly that evening and once we were inside, Led Zeppelin rocked the house.
Move forward to Dec. 3, 1979. The Who concert that night was sold out and myself and a group of friends arrived at the Cincinnati Coliseum later than planned. I was living at an old farmhouse on the Ziegler farm with three of my high school buddies at the time. Three out of the four housemates made the trek to see the concert downtown.
As we walked up on the crowd that night, the noise level was loud and the overall sound that was heard was chaotic. We looked at the masses trying to get into the main doors and started to wade into the fray. We began to assess the situation, trying to figure out our next moves, deciding where to meet up later if we got split up, which looked probable.
Apparently, a member of The Who had overslept and they had to do their sound check much later than usual. The music fans outside had been waiting for the doors to open for quite a while by the time the sound check began and they could hear the loud-as-hell music going on inside. That is when the trouble began.
The combination of The Who cranking out the jams damn near at show time made some fans think that they were missing the beginning of the concert. The surge was on. Eventually the doors were unlocked. The problem was, the doors to the building opened outward and the crush of the people kept the doors from being opened fully. And, even though there was a whole row of doors lining the front of the building, the freaked-out security guards and arena personnel only opened two to maybe three doors despite the chaos. It was soon evident that people were being crushed and were in real danger. People began to panic and many who managed to make it through the gauntlet were trying to rescue those behind them in harm’s way, grabbing their hands and legs and trying to pull them in.
As we waded into the crowd, we heard some loudspeakers blaring announcements telling people to come around to the north side of the venue and enter via the open doors located there. For whatever reasons of fate, we decided to abandon our assault into the main crush by the front doors and we made our way around to the side doors and went into the show. As we walked around the main surge, you could hear the loud shouts and noises. It was mayhem, but we just thought it was the typical rock concert rowdiness. Due to our detour, we had no idea of the tragedy that was unfolding only yards away.
Finally, we entered through the side doors and found some seats and started to party. The Who were their usual rockin' selves and they put on a great show. During the concert a younger brother of a friend of ours found us. He was working a food stand inside the venue and he tried to tell us that he heard a rumor that five people had died outside the Coliseum. He was a youngster and we dismissed it as simply a goofy rumor, and then we asked a few people around us if they had heard the same thing, but tales of the catastrophe had yet to spread among the audience.
When The Who came out for an encore, you could see that they were not as lively as they were during the rest of the concert. We did not know this at the time, but they were told between the end of the concert and the encore that something terrible had happened, and that they would be given the details afterward and so go ahead and finish this concert quickly. After two brief songs, their performance ended.
After the show was over, we walked out through the front doors of the Coliseum and found ourselves bathed in the bright lights of multiple television news crews, focusing their cameras on us as we left. By that time, all of the bodies had been removed and there was no sign that anything bad had happened anywhere, so we were still clueless. We got to our car and turned on a cassette tape that we already had in the console and we never turned on the radio during our drive home. We did not find out about the tragedy until we pulled into the driveway of the farmhouse.
When we finally made it home and pulled into the driveway, our roommate that stayed behind came running out saying, "Wow, man, am I glad to see you guys. Thank God you're alright!" We were like, "Huh? What the hell are you talking about?" It was then that he told us what happened. But, that was only the beginning of what we would experience later that night.
Apparently, the news of 11 young people dying on the ground outside of The Who concert in Cincinnati was announced in real time on the Monday Night Football telecast, a broadcast seen around the world. This was 1979, so there was no such thing as cell phones. As a result, we could not be contacted in any way while at the concert or while on the road. No one knew whether we had survived the show or not, if we were alive or dead.
When the announcement of the deaths was made on ABC TV, a lot of our relatives reached for the phone. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that we would be at a rock concert of that nature, and the worry sank in. And, it was hours after the show before we got home, so our roommate didn’t know what to say to the many worried callers who were lighting up the landline other than to say we had not shown up yet. Tick tock. The phone rang off the hook as relatives and friends called in from all over the country.
Once back at the house, all three of us had to sit down and go down a list of phone calls to return. One after another, we heard the sound of family and friends sounding relieved, telling us that the worst had crossed their minds, and that they were glad to simply hear our voices. You have to remember; even the sound of the phone ringing as we called them back could have meant bad news.
I talked to friend of mine a few days later who was in the thick of the calamity that night. She was right in the middle of the crush, and she told me that she thought she was going to die. She was crying her eyes out as it happened, holding onto her boyfriend’s hand, grabbing on for dear life, but his hand slipped from her as the pressure worsened. At one point, she stepped on something on the ground and she freaked out, praying that it was not a person. She looked down and was relieved to see it was only an empty sleeping bag. Once she got inside, found her boyfriend and caught her breath, however, she turned around to see the bodies on the ground with folks frantically trying to perform CPR on 11 young people as they lay on the cold concrete.
The young fans that died that night
Jacqueline L. Eckerle, 15 (went to the concert with her friend, Karen Morrison)
Karen L. Morrison, 15 (see above)
Bryan J. Wagner, 17 (went to the concert with his brother)
Peter Douglas Bowes, 18
David J. Heck, 19 (went to the concert with a friend)
Stephen McGhee Preston, 19 (went to the concert with friends)
Phillip K. Snyder, 20
Connie Sue Burns, 21 (mother of two; went to the concert with her husband)
Walter H. Adams, Jr., 22
James Theodore Warmoth, 21
Teva Rae Ladd, 27 (mother of two)