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Death Toll from Madrid’s Thriller Music Park Stampede Rises to Four

Crowd crush at Madrid's Thriller Music Park (photo: Estefanía Sa / El País)

The stampede at Madrid’s Thriller Music Park, in which three young women died during a Halloween performance by Steve Aoki, claimed the life of a fourth victim over the weekend when a 17-year-old girl died of her injuries, reports El País. A fifth victim, 20 years old, remains in “extremely grave” condition.

The death of the teenager came amidst intensified finger-pointing over the causes of the disaster. Many witnesses continue to insist that the crowd exceeded its authorized capacity of 9,650, whether due to overselling on the part of organizers, entry with falsified tickets, or gatecrashers entering without tickets at all. Witnesses and investigators have described dangerous overcrowding in select points throughout the venue, including the passageway where a human bottleneck led to the fatal crowd crush.

Additionally, some attendees claim that security guards did not search their bags upon entry, which could explain the presence of the fateful fireworks that organizers attribute as the cause of the disaster; they also claim that security never checked concertgoers’ identification, allowing entry to attendees as young as 15 years old. One witness claims to have heard a supervisor tell a security guard, “Look less [at I.D.s] and [get them in] faster, faster.”

Entry to the event was 18-plus, which makes the death of an underage attendee all the more problematic for Diviertt, the promoters in charge of the event, as well as the Madrid city government, which owns and operates Madrid Arena.

Today, new details emerged that called into question whether the Madrid Arena was even fully permitted for events like Thriller Music Park. An official report from 2010 detailed “specific deficiencies” in the building’s security, including insufficient ventilation and fire-suppression systems, an abundance of flammable materials, and insufficient passageways leading from each level to the exterior of the building. It was in one such passageway, just 10 feet wide, where the fatal crowd crush took place. It appears that the arena had operated for some time in a kind of bureaucratic grey area: A police report from 2006 noted that the venue “has been operating for four years, in which it has hosted musical performances, sports events, expositions, etc., and it remains unthinkable that it has operated without a municipal license.”

In response to the growing furor, Madrid mayor Ana Botella, of the conservative People’s Party, announced that the city would prohibit similarly sized concerts and “mega-parties” on municipal property, declaring, “The risk is too great when you bring together, in an enclosed space, great masses of young people, high volume, high temperatures, and, more than anything, too much alcohol.” When pressured as to whether the government intended to cancel all entertainment on municipal property, such as circuses and theater performances, she responded, “Everyone knows which types of events I’m referring to.” An official in the city’s commerce department clarified that the city will prohibit only unseated concerts and parties, but Botella’s comment suggested an echo of a San Mateo, California, supervisor’s proposed ban on “raves” after a drug-related death at the Cow Palace in 2010.

Investigators are now faced with the task of reviewing 1,350 hours of video footage to determine what went wrong. While initial reports focused blame on a lone actor who set off fireworks inside the venue, it is becoming clear that security failed to maintain adequate crowd distribution across the venue’s three floors, leading to the fatal bottleneck in one of the building’s main access passageways. While the Madrid Arena was certified for a maximum capacity of 10,600 people, that figure is based upon the assumption that the crowd would be evenly distributed across the venue’s three floors. However, at 3:00 a.m., when Aoki began his performance, the main floor was packed with between 5,600 and 7,000 people, according to official sources — as much as double the recommended capacity.

Around 3:30 a.m., as Aoki began his set, roughly 2,000 people, including many who had been drinking in a “botellón” outside the venue, attempted to enter the arena, coinciding with attendees from the upper floors attempting to access the main floor, as well as a smaller number of people attempting to exit the venue. They all collided in a single passageway. Here, witness reports sound similar to those of the 2010 Love Parade in Duisburg, Germany, where 21 people died in a crowd crush: Pushing, chaos, claustrophobia, the inability of moving in any direction, rising temperatures, and waning oxygen. One woman described finding herself lifted off the ground, supported by elbows jammed against her ribs; those of smaller builds, particularly women and girls, were sucked under the crush of bodies.

According to El País, “While a small number of people attempted to leave the main floor, a much bigger number, excited by the music, alcohol, and the desire to be a part of the action, charged in the opposite direction. The collided in a hallway three meters wide, in semi-darkness and without knowing what lay in front or behind. According to various witnesses, this bottleneck went on for many minutes, until the explosion that set off a panic. That was the supposed firework thrown by ‘an unknown person who caused this mess,’ in the words of a spokesperson from Divertt, which focuses all the blame for the disaster on that lone pyromaniac. In any case, in the version of those present, the smoke and sparks merely served as the trigger for a situation that already showed many possibilities for turning into a disaster.”

Today’s report that the arena lacked proper permits creates new political headaches for Mayor Botella, who is the wife of former prime minister José María Aznar. According to El País, Botella has claimed that Madrid Arena did not need a permit for concerts and “mega-parties.” However, Madrid Espacios y Congresos, the government-run entity that administers the arena, says that it began trying to secure such permits in 2009; the mayor at the time disregarded that application because the city was in the process of trying to privatize the venue. The privatization plan was thwarted a few months later, however, after a city agency noted “grave deficiencies” in the venue, including “insufficient” passageways leading in and out of the venue.

It remains to be seen what implications the Thriller Music Park disaster may have for large-scale electronic-music events, whether in Spain or internationally, but the tragedy comes at a time when electronic-music events are increasingly coming under scrutiny. Just last week, Long Island’s Haunted Coliseum party was shut down after police and medical personnel responded to numerous reports of dangerously intoxicated teens at the all-ages event. Despite initial rumors on Twitter, there were no fatalities in the Haunted Coliseum event.