Remember When: The Who’s Cincinnati Concert Tragedy

On December 3, 1979, The Who performed a sold-out show at Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati, Ohio. This would be the band’s first tour without Keith Moon, who had died a few months prior from a prescription drug overdose. Moon was replaced by Kenney Jones from Small Faces. The Cincinnati concert was only the third show on this leg of the tour. 

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More than 18,000 fans were due to arrive at the coliseum to watch The Who perform. General Admission ticket holders were scheduled to enter at 3:00 p.m. The venue was understaffed and ill-prepared and the fans weren’t allowed in for several hours. The crowd began to swell near the closed doors and minor crushes of people began. We sometimes use the verb “pack” when referring to fans. Fans packed into the coliseum. But these are people, not sardines, and a crowd this large wasn’t so much packed as they were trapped. 

Only two doors were opened to allow fans into the General Admission area. Confusion ensued when fans outside heard the band’s soundcheck from inside the venue. Thinking the band had already taken the stage, thousands of fans rushed the pair of open doors. The stampede was chaotic and people were now trapped inside the dense crowd. At a certain point, there was no way out and 11 people died of asphyxiation. Twenty-six others were injured. 

In some reports, the only way to move forward was to step on people. Fans were carried along against their will like they were caught in waves. A sea of bodies swaying. A scene is recalled by survivors of faces pointing up with their mouths open fighting for air. 

Fire officials pleaded with Bill Curbishley – The Who’s manager – to cancel the show. He argued against this, saying cancelling the gig would cause panic. But panic had already set in. 

The band took the stage and played the concert, unaware of the tragedy. What you had was a bizarre mixture of euphoria and death. One of the biggest rock bands in history played at extreme volume while some of their fans fought for their lives. You can imagine the chaos as people shouted for help over the deafening volume of a rock concert. After the show ended, The Who learned of the tragedy. Pete Townshend, upset by the loss of life, was angered by the decision to play while people were dying, trampled to death. 

But the tour did go on, creating more regret for Townshend. The band’s next show was in Buffalo. Roger Daltrey dedicated that night’s show to the victims in Cincinnati. Townshend would later lament leaving Cincinnati to carry on with the tour saying, “We’re in the wrong city. We’re in Buffalo.”

Many factors contributed to the tragedy. Unreserved or festival-type seating led to fans arriving early, hoping to compete for a spot near the stage. Designated seating solves this problem. The other issue was the inadequate number of doors opened to allow fans in. Too many people had arrived early, and even those who wanted to back away from early entrance couldn’t, they were trapped inside a dense crowd, anxious and rowdy, with oxygen at a premium.

People at the edge of the crowd could see panic coming on like a slow wave. Fans were pushing and shoving each other. When one feels that they cannot breathe or cannot move, fear sets in. Fight or flight. But flight wasn’t an option because they were jammed in. And the instinct of a trapped animal is to fight.

Mob mentality replaced order with chaos. Fans chased a premium view of the band. Others fought for their lives, trying to breathe. No one was there to help because the situation became desperate. A cascading series of tragedies followed and then it was too late. 

Sell as many tickets as possible. Cram as many fans in as they can. In an effort to squeeze more profit, many people lost their lives. Look at the ages of the people below. Parents buried their children and much of this has to do with greed. 

The victim’s families sued The Who, their concert promoter, and the city of Cincinnati. The case was settled in 1983 and each family was awarded roughly $150,000 ($440,700 today). An additional $750,000 ($2.2m today) was divided among the 26 injured fans. 

A memorial was created in 2010 to commemorate those who died. Mayor John Cranley dedicated a historical marker at the venue in 2015. The Who finally returned to play Cincinnati 43 years later at TQL Stadium on May 15, 2022. During the concert, the band paid tribute to the victims of the 1979 tragedy by displaying the names and photos of the 11 fans who died.

Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam delivered a pre-recorded message prior to the show. Pearl Jam had experienced their own tragedy when fans were killed during their set at the Roskilde Festival in Denmark in 2000. Vedder explained in the video that Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend had comforted him during that time as the two bands became connected by shared tragedy. 

The following is a list of people who died that night, December 3, 1979, in Cincinnati:

Walter Adams, Jr., 22

Peter Bowes, 18

Connie Sue Burns, 21

Jacqueline Eckerle, 15

David Heck, 19

Teva Rae Inlow Ladd, 27

Karen Morrison, 15

Stephan Preston, 19

Philip Snyder, 20

Bryan Wagner, 17

James Theodore Warmoth, 21

Photo by Chris Morphet/Redferns

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