This is not the first time when a large number of people have lost their lives in a stampede at a religious gathering. According to data collated by FT Illyas and others, 79% of all stampedes in India from 1954-2012 took place in religious mass gatherings (“Human stampedes during religious festivals: A comparative review of mass gathering emergencies in India”, 2013).

Here is why stampedes take place, and some common factors behind them.

First, what is a stampede?

Wenguo Weng and others define a stampede as “an impulsive mass movement of a crowd that often results in injuries and deaths” (“Review of analyzes on crowd-gathering risk and its evaluation methods”, 2023).

According to Illiyas and others, a stampede can be described as the “disruption of the orderly movement of crowds… leading to injuries and fatalities”, often “in response to a perceived danger, loss of physical space”, or “a will to attain something seen as gratifying”.

Why do stampedes kill?

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Most stampede casualties are caused by traumatic asphyxia — there is partial or complete cessation of respiration due to external compression of the thorax and/or upper abdomen. Notably, significant compression forces, enough to hurt and kill humans, have been reported in even moderate crowds of six to seven people pushing in one direction.

Other possible reasons for stampede-related deaths include myocardial infarction (heart attack, caused by decreased or complete cessation of blood flow to a portion of the heart), direct crushing injury to internal organs, head injuries, and neck compression.

How does human psychology lead to stampedes?

Stampedes almost always take place during mass gatherings — either spontaneous gatherings, like in a metro station during the rush hour, or planned ones, like the Hathras satsang.

Almost all stampedes are either triggered or made worse by panic. In a seminal paper, psychologist Alexander Mintz theorized that “in panic-producing situations cooperative behavior is needed for success and is rewarding to individuals as long as everybody cooperates. However, once the cooperative pattern of behavior is disturbed, cooperation ceases to be rewarding to the individuals” (“Non-adaptive group behavior”, 1952).

Taking the example of a fire emergency in a movie theater, Mintz argued that while it pays to cooperate and not push each other, if a few uncooperative individuals block the exits by pushing, “any individual who does not push can expect that he will be burned”. Thus pushing becomes an advantageous (rather least disadvantageous) form of behavior for individuals, but at the level of the group, it can lead to disastrous circumstances.

Some stampedes may also be triggered by what sociologist Neil J Smelser refers to as “craze”. In Theory of Collective Behavior (1962), he defined the term as “[the] Mobilization for action based on a positive wish-fulfillment belief”. This belief can be rational or irrational. But in large group settings, it percolates to every member and can make them act in detriment to their own individual interests.

Take for example what happened in Hathras. Uttar Pradesh Chief Secretary Manoj Kumar Singh, after visiting the site of the tragedy, said: “I am told that people rushed to touch his [the preacher’s] feet and tried to collect soil [from where he walked]and a stampede took place”.

How does the physical organization of spaces contribute to stampedes?

Psychology of mass behavior, however, is not the only factor behind stampedes. Many stampedes can be prevented simply through better design of spaces where mass gatherings take place (or are likely to take place spontaneously). This in turn may even prevent panic from setting in.

Chun-Hao Shao and others listed a number of factors in their paper “Stampede Events and Strategies for Crowd Management” (2018). These include:

  • Lack of light
  • Crowd flow not being divided for different crowds
  • Collapse of barriers, buildings
  • Blocked exits, evacuation routes
  • Poor design of hardware (such as a revolving door at the entrance)
  • Fire hazards

Crowd density (number of people per unit of area) should play a crucial role in determining how spaces for mass gatherings should be decided. According to Chun-Hao Shao and others’ simulation, “When the density approached 3 and 4 persons/ sq m, most cases spent over 8 min in evacuation… If evacuees spend too much time waiting for evacuation or are blocked near the exit, crowd panic will increase, as will stampede risk”.

Another related factor to keep in mind for designers and event organizers are the dynamics of the crowd’s likely movement. KM Ngai and others classify two types of stampedes on the basis of movement — unidirectional or turbulent (“Human Stampedes: A Systematic Review of Historical and Peer-Reviewed Sources”, 2009).

Unidirectional stampede events may occur when a crowd moving in the same direction encounters a sudden positive or negative change in force which alters its movement. A positive force can be a “sudden stop” situation like a bottleneck and blocked exit, whereas a negative force would be something like a broken barrier or column which sends a group of people tumbling. Turbulent stampede events can occur in situations with uncontrolled crowds, induced panic, or crowds merging from numerous directions.

How to better prevent stampedes, or at least, mitigate their risks?

In an ideal scenario, planners must not allow more than a number of people to enter a contained space. But this is not always possible. In such situations, the number and placement of exits becomes crucial, as does event organizers’ vigilance, monitoring, and real-time preventive interventions.

Illyas and others wrote: “Planning for mass gatherings is an inter-agency, multi-disciplinary approach which relies on the identification of potential hazards to the design and execution of appropriate mitigation measures”. They developed the following stampede risk-reduction framework.

Hathras stampede kills over 100: Why stampedes take place

Among other things, the researchers emphasized on live surveillance of the crowd to “enable the organizers to monitor the pressure buildup, increase in crowd density, bottlenecks, and to identify the source of crowd disturbance”. This, they argue, can help organizers manage crowds.

Also crucial is communication, between organizers who are often from different bodies, organizations (temple authorities, local administration officials, and the police), as well as between organizers and the crowd. Organizers for a situation where a warning has to be issued, and know “who will be responsible for issuing the warning and how the crowd will be informed”.

What are some notable deadly stampedes? Why did they occur?

Moscow, Russia (1896): One of the first documented human crowd disasters, occurred on the eve of Russian Tsar Nicholas II’s coronation ceremony in 1896. According to contemporary reports, more than 1,000 people were crushed or trampled to death when the crowd surged based on rumors that souvenirs were in short supply. supply

Allahabad, India (1954): Probably the most fatal Kumbh Mela stampede in history. The first post-Independence Kumbh was plagued by a lack of crowd control mechanisms, poor planning, and excessive presence of VIPs. What triggered the tragedy was a crowd surge that broke through the barriers, separating them from a procession of sadhus. Around 800 died. Lessons from the 1954 tragedy continue to be foundational for the management of the Kumbh Mela, the largest religious gathering in the world.

Lima, Peru (1963): Fans incensed at a referee’s decision during a Peru-Argentina match invaded the pitch. The police fired tear gas canisters into one of the grandstands to prevent more fans from doing so, triggering mass panic. Escaping spectators were crushed in enclosed stairways, which were blocked at the bottom with solid corrugated steel gates. The official death toll was 326.

Wai, India (2005): The annual pilgrimage at the Mandhardevi temple in Maharashtra’s Satara district turned tragic when more than 340 people were trampled to death, and hundreds injured. The stampede occurred when some people fell down the steps made slippery by devotees breaking coconuts.

Mina, Saudi Arabia (2015): Over the years, many a deadly stampede has occurred in Mecca during the Hajj pilgrimage. Among the deadliest took place in 2015, when, according to the official Saudi account, two large groups of pilgrims intersected from different directions onto the same street. While the Saudi figures put the death toll at 769, news agencies such as Reuters and AP claim that over 2,000 pilgrims were killed.

CAPTION FOR IMAGE: A framework for stampede prevention and mitigation (Illyas et al)