Houston authorities are investigating what officials described as a crowd surge that killed at least eight people and injured scores of others, turning the Astroworld Festival into one of the worst musical concert tragedies in U.S. history.
Officials declared a “mass casualty incident” at 9:38 p.m. Friday local time during the festival at NRG Park, where an estimated 50,000 people were in attendance, Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña told reporters during an overnight news briefing.
The surge began around the time that rapper Travis Scott, a festival headliner, took the stage.
“The crowd began to compress toward the front of the stage, and that caused some panic, and it started causing some injuries,” said Peña. “People began to fall out, become unconscious, and it created additional panic.”
As first responders rushed to the scene, 17 people were transported to local hospitals, including 11 who were in cardiac arrest, the fire chief said. There were scores of other injuries, he added.
Peña said officials did not yet know the cause of death for the eight victims. It was not immediately clear whether they were among those transported to hospitals.
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Many people were also treated at the scene, where a field hospital had been set up. About 300 people were examined at that site throughout the day, said Peña.
Astroworld promoters had medical personnel and an emergency transport component at the festival, but “they were quickly overwhelmed” as the injury count mounted at “really a chaotic event,” the fire chief said.
Witnesses recounted pushing and shoving during the performances that preceded Scott’s set.
Rene Perez and Charles Alford told USA TODAY they were shocked by the number of people passing out or “crushed in” by the crowds.
Alford considers himself a “bigger guy” at 286 pounds, yet even he struggled to move through the throngs. He said he felt “helpless and scared” because as much as he tried, he couldn’t lift everyone out of the barricades or through the crowd. As he attempted to carry a woman away from the stage area, people pushed against him and he didn’t see security.
“I had an ‘I might die moment,’ I saw … almost no one helping people and I even started to fall and my chest felt heavy. My survival mode kicked in,” Alford said. “It was terrifying because the music didn’t stop and the help didn’t seem to come.”
As people in need screamed, Perez said paramedics struggled to get through the crowds. On multiple occasions, he said he saw concertgoers jump on top of the paramedic and securities golf carts and vehicles.
“It was insane, it was dark and you saw people reaching their hands out from the ground and me and my friend tried to help them,” Perez said.
Amy Harris, a freelance photographer from the Cincinnati area, told USA TODAY people at festivals are usually “happy to be there and relaxed.” But this one was different from the 10 or more concerts she’s photographed for at least the last 12 summers.
She “just felt this aggression from the crowd all day,” said Harris, who added that the atmosphere put her on guard in much the same way that assignments to photograph protests last year did.
There was enough room inside NRG Park for the crowd, she said. However, many festival-goers crowded forward to get as close to the stage as possible.
“It made me very anxious and uneasy,” said Harris.
Festival attendee Steven Gutierrez Gutierrez, 26, said he watched in horror as people flooded toward the stage, the Houston Chronicle reported.
“It got to the point people were stepping on other people,” said Gutierrez, whom the report said traveled from upstate New York to Houston for the event with his friends.
Fans pressed up against each other, moving almost as one unit in the mosh pit, said Gutierrez.
“We were hanging on to each other to avoid getting separated,” he said. “If you let go, you could easily drift apart.”
Houston Police Chief Troy Finner said during the news briefing that investigators did not yet have identifications for many of the injured.
In all, 367 police officers and 241 security officers had been assigned to the festival, said Finner. There had been a problem with concertgoers who pushed past security and ticket scanners when the festival gates opened on Friday afternoon. However, that situation was brought under control and was unrelated to the subsequent tragedy, said Finner.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner on Saturday announced people looking to reunite with a loved one could call a help line.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said he has directed the state’s Department of Public Safety to assist with the investigation of the tragedy.
Houston police established a command center at the Wyndham Hotel on Kirby Drive near the festival site for information on missing persons. Authorities were trying to reconnect relatives with concertgoers who had been transported to the hospital, “some as young as 10” years old, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said during the news briefing.
Astroworld is a two-day music festival that was was sold out, according to the Astroworld website. The rest of Friday night’s performances and Saturday’s show were canceled.
“Our hearts are with the Astroworld Festival family tonight – especially those we lost and their loved ones,” show promoters tweeted early Saturday. “We are focused on supporting local officials however we can.”
Scott tweeted on Saturday that he was “absolutely devastated by what took place last night.”
“I am committed to working together with the Houston Community to heal and support the families in need,” he added.
The festival was staging its third year of music. Musicians and artists who were scheduled to appear included Young Thug and YSL, Bad Bunny, Chief Keef, Tame Impala, Earth Wind & Fire and others, according to the festival’s website.
Drake joined Travis Scott on-stage at the concert — which was live-streamed by Apple Music — and posted photos to Instagram after the performance.
Houston Police Executive Assistant Chief Larry Satterwhite was near the front of the crowd and said it seemed the surge “happened all at once.”
“Suddenly we had several people down on the ground, experiencing some type of cardiac arrest or some type of medical episode,” Satterwhite said. “And so we immediately started doing CPR, and moving people right then, and that’s when I went and met with the promoters, and Live Nation, and they agreed to end early in the interest of public safety.”
Finner called for calm and urged people not to jump to conclusions as to what caused the surge.
“I think it’s very important that none of us speculate. Nobody has all the answers tonight,” Finner said.
“We’re going to do an investigation and find out because it’s not fair to the producers, to anybody else involved, until we determine what happened, what caused the surge,” he said. “We don’t know, but we will find out.”
Finner told reporters that Scott and the event promoters cooperated with police.
The incident resulted in the most non-shooting deaths at a U.S. concert since the 2003 Station nightclub fire that killed 100 people in Rhode Island.
Eleven people died and about two dozen were injured in 1979 at a concert for The Who as thousands of fans tried to get into Cincinnati’s riverfront coliseum.
Contributing: The Associated Press