“Eerily similar:” The connection between The Who concert and the Astroworld tragedies

     Last Friday, in Houston, Texas, during famous rapper Travis Scott’s Astroworld concert. Here, eight people lost their lives, along with hundreds of people who were injured, and many who are still in the intensive care unit. 

     One cannot ignore the similarities between the Astroworld tragedy and a local concert tragedy over forty years ago.

Images of The Who concert tragedy which occurred on December 3, 1979, killing 11 people. (Courtesy of Live for Live Music, USA Today, and Bettmann Archive)

     On December 3, 1979, the British rock band The Who performed at the Riverfront Coliseum, now known as the Heritage Bank Center, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Although, this concert ended tragically leading to the deaths of 11 people. 

     Three of these deaths at The Who concert were teenagers, two current and one former student of Finneytown High School. Two sophomores, Jackie Eckerle and Karen Morrison were both fifteen years old, along with Alumnus Stephan Preston, who was nineteen years old. 

     According to Finneytown alumnus Frederick Wittenbaum, these deaths rocked the small town of Finneytown, leading to absolute devastation of the whole town and the Finneytown High School. 

     “Initially, it was devastation because we’re such a small, tight-knit area. Anything that happened that was of a significant major, created a giant ripple that went through the entire community, as we all were brothers and sisters.”

Comparison between the festival seating at Astroworld and The Who concert festival seating. (Courtesy of Houston Chronicle and NPR)

     These events were so similar in how they both had festival seating, which was formally banned in Cincinnati after the events at The Who concert on December 27, 1979. Unfortunately, 25 years later in 2004, Cincinnati removed this ban. 

     Along with both of the concerts being festival seating, the atmosphere of the concert venues was “eerily similar,” according to Wittembaum. 

     “If you listen to the interviews that have been done at Astroworld by survivors and then go back and listen to the interviews that were done in December 1979, you would think you were talking about the same event because the description they are giving is almost identical.”

     In both situations, when the crowd began to move towards the front, people began to get crushed. The victims were unable to move, breathe, or lift their arms above their heads. The air became extremely hot, making breathing almost impossible. Similarly, people got stampeded, making them unable to get up due to the thrush of the crowd. Ultimately, they passed away due to asphyxiation, which is the state or process of being deprived of oxygen, which caused many people to pass out. 

     According to Wittembaum, the Finneytown community all felt shocked and angry. 

     “Why did this have to happen again? This was something that didn’t need to happen.”

Creators of the P.E.M. Memorial Scholarship Fund Steve Bentz, Wittenbaum, Walt Medlock, Brad Rubin, Roger Daltrey, Toni Hutchins, and John Hutchins pose for a picture. (Courtesy of the P.E.M. Memorial Website)

     In honor of these eleven victims who passed away at The Who concert, specifically the three Finneytown High School students, a P.E.M. Memorial Scholarship Fund was created. This scholarship fund was created in August 2010 by Finneytown alumni Steve Bentz, Wittenbaum, Walt Medlock, Brad Rubin, Roger Daltrey, Toni Hutchins, and John Hutchins. 

     The P.E.M. Memorial Scholarship Fund has helped 35 students over the eleven years it has been in effect, in which each student has received a total of $5,000 each. Three scholarships are awarded per year, although they have done two extra, one for the COVID-19 pandemic and another one in memory of the other eight individuals who passed away on December 3, 1979. 

     The students who are selected are pursuing a future in the arts, whether they are majoring or minoring. This is because the three students who passed away deeply loved the arts, and were planning a future in this.

Images of the P.E.M. Memorial for The Who concert tragedy. (Courtesy of the P.E.M. Memorial Website)

      There is an application process through the P.E.M. Memorial Scholarship Fund, in which the committee then reads all of the applications, then chooses the scholarships based on this. According to Wittenbaum, if the committee receives more than three applications they figure out a way for everyone who applied to receive some sort of scholarship. Whether this is through the P.E.M. Memorial Scholarship Fund or through their helpful anonymous donor, making everyone whos applied have the opportunity to receive a scholarship.

     “[The deaths still impact the community to this day through] putting the P.E.M. Memorial Scholarship Fund out there. It gives them all an avenue to express their feelings, thoughts, ideas, and experiences. It’s given [Finneytown community members and the families of the 11 individuals who lost their lives] a chance to let it out and share with others who are there.”

     Donations for the P.E.M. Memorial Scholarship Fund can be made through the Finneytown Schools Educational Foundation, P.O. Box 317647, Cincinnati, Ohio. 

GoFundMe has a page set up that links to various, verified fundraisers that go directly to those affected by the Astroworld incident. Four fundraisers have been set up on the page, these are to cover funeral and hospital costs for the families of the Astroworld concert victims.

Images of the memorial sites for the victims of the Astroworld concert tragedy. (Courtesy of Getty Images, Washington Newsday, and Robert Bumsted)