The Trampling Death at WalMart and the Financial Crisis

December 5, 2008 at 10:04 pm

Listening to WLW (a local AM talk radio station) the other night, I happened to catch an interview with Paul Wertheimer about the Wal-Mart tragedy.

Wertheimer is an expert in crowd management. His career began after the 1979 Who concert in Cincinnati when he was appointed chief of staff of the citizen task force investigating the incident.

He also testified to the Rhode Island General Assembly after the Great White fire.

In Wertheimer’s view, the tragedy could have been prevented with proper crowd control.

Eddie Fingers, the DJ conducting the interview, brought up an interesting point when he asked how does someone die in a crowd incident like this?  Wertheimer explained that it’s typically asphyxiation.

The exchange between Fingers and Wertheimer was fascinating. Wertheimer trying to argue for better crowd management, Fingers trying to understand how this could happen to an individual.

Wertheimer claimed Wal-Mart did not safely manage the crowd. Evidence suggests there were no queues, insufficient management, and an ineffective police contingent.

Fingers kept pressing. How was it though that this young man was unable to save himself? He was 6’5″ and 240 pounds. Fingers struggled with how someone like this could be killed just by being stepped on.

As I listened, I found myself struggling with the same concept. How is that this big guy, this security contractor could be killed in a crowd. Hurt maybe. But killed? It’s hard to grasp the power of a crowd.

Wertheimer explained that it didn’t matter how big he was. Anyone put in the same situation could have faced the same result. Giants offensive lineman David Diehl. A young Arnold Schwarzenegger. Chuck Norris. It didn’t matter.

I realized that it comes down to physics. A crowd can generate more force than a single individual. Notice how the force broke the doors.

I have felt this force at concerts. As the crowd pushes towards the stage, you can become trapped between those in front of you and those behind with no way to push in either direction. And if you happen to fall, it can be difficult if not impossible to get back up.

Those who die in these situations are crushed until they can’t breath. It is like drowning in a human crowd.

This is why Wertheimer said if you find yourself in this situation, try moving sideways against the waves. It is almost the same strategy as fighting against a current.

As I listened to the discussion, I fought the AM radio talk logic: people need to be personally responsible for their own situations.

I say “fought” because, like many of us, I tend to believe this statement to some degree.

But this case struck me as different. How could an individual like Jdimytai Damour have known or anticipated the forces at work? Would any of us have acted any differently? And, even if we had, would it have helped us?

Ron Duritsch, a fan swept up by the crowd at The Who concert in Cincinnati, described it like this:

“A wave swept me to the left and when I regained my stance I felt that I was standing on someone. The helplessness and frustration of this moment sent a wave of panic through me. I screamed with all my strength that I was standing on someone. I couldn’t move. I could only scream.”

Another tendency in these situations is to characterize the crowd as “out of control” stampeding savages or animals.

Here’s an example one commentator describes the crowd as “animals”:

What the commentator doesn’t take into account is that once a crowd becomes a crowd, individuals may no longer be able to take steps that they would normally take. For example, how do you stop and help someone when the crowd current is pushing you forward?

The third component here, the one we haven’t talked about yet, is WalMart. Many people are blaming them and the family of Jdimytai Damour is planning on suing.

According to Wertheimer, they may have a case. Wertheimer calls a situation like this “preventable.” Why? Because we know what leads to incidents like these and we know how to properly stage events so that these situations don’t happen.

WalMart management, when planning the event and knowing the crowds it might draw, seemed to be in the best position to have properly prepared.

Regardless of blame, I think one of the reasons we are so fascinated by this case is that there are many similarities between this event and what is going on with our economy.

One of the biggest economic tropes going is that we are personally responsible for our own financial success.

Given a rational, functioning system, there may be a good deal of truth to this statement. But when the system fails, I can’t help thinking that even the personally responsible may fall before an oncoming tidal wave.

This is why the role of government should be to ensure a functioning economic system – not just for the banks and financial community, but for everyone. Government is not simply “bad” in every situation.

A good government responsibly regulates the economy, makes sure institutions can be trusted, and ensures a fair playing field for all involved. This is the role of government that we need to restore.