Fire Prevention and Protection Report: Five Women Crushed at Overcrowded Concert in Madrid, Spain

By George Potter

It is quite common among entertainment promoters to sell more tickets to major events than the legal capacity of the venues. However, it is one thing is to sell maybe 20 percent or so more excess tickets, and another thing entirely is to sell nearly double the number of the calculated capacity. This is exactly what happened at the Madrid Arena on Halloween of 2012.

The musical event, a concert by American disc jockey Steve Aoki, was expected to be a sell-out by the promoter, and indeed it was. The venue, a multiple-use pavilion not far from the center of Madrid, has a maximum capacity of 10,600 as configured for this kind of event (the capacity varies according to the particular activity: for sports events, the capacity can be reduced to 7,000 to 8,000 spectators, since the ground level floor is used for sports activities, leaving only the elevated first and second levels for spectators). At approximately 4:00 a.m. several hundred spectators stampeded in attempting to exit the ground floor through an emergency exit. The bottleneck produced several blockades, causing a number of people to lose their balance and fall under and be trampled by feet of those still standing and pushing. In the end, three young women were crushed to death under the crowd, and another two gravely injured. One female victim died three days later, while the other survivor remained in critical condition in a Madrid hospital for some time before succumbing to her injuries. The investigation revealed that this victim did not receive adequate medical attention for nearly a half hour after she had been trampled.

A number of factors contributed to this tragedy, all of which could have been controlled, reduced, or even eliminated.

  • Although the legal capacity for the event was approximately 10,600, it is estimated that up to 20,000 attended, mostly those in their late teens and slightly older. The investigation has discovered that more than 17,000 tickets had been sold for the event.
  • During the concert inside the pavilion, at least three distinct "botellones," groups of teenagers drinking beer and mixed alcoholic drinks, were at different points around the site. The municipal police have estimated that at least 1,000 young people participated in these three activities, none of which were controlled by the police.
  • The Madrid Arena is owned by the city of Madrid, but a semi-public company actually maintains and operates the building, including negotiating and contracting with event promoters.
  • A private security company has the contract for overall security and safety matters at the pavilion. In the initial court hearings, this company has denied any responsibility in regard to access, control, and internal safety matters.
  • The promoter, a company involved principally in organizing similar events (more later), had printed and distributed more than 20,000 tickets to the event. Although no ticket stubs could be recovered since entries were not controlled, evidence of the number of tickets was found a few days after the event in an office space inside the Madrid Arena complex. Witnesses have testified that no entry verifications were performed, some spectators used false tickets, and no age verifications were made. Spanish laws forbid persons under 18 to attend this kind of event where alcoholic drinks are sold. In testimony, a number of people under 18 declared that they had no problems entering the pavilion.
  • The promoter had contracted a company supposedly specialized in controlling access to and moving spectators at mass-public events. The manager of this company has declared that he only provided some employees and that the promoter was to have defined their functions.
  • Spain has a number of very specific mandatory building codes regarding the use of fire-resistant building materials, sectorization, the means of evacuation, and fire protection installations, among others. This legislation applies to nearly all buildings according to their dimensions and use.
  • Spanish legislation is also fairly strict in regard to public events, and venue spectator capacities are closely scrutinized, up-to-date emergency action plans for places like Madrid Arena are required to be revised by municipal authorities, and specific events are required to have their specific emergency evacuation plans. However, recent personnel changes in the fire prevention division of the city's fire service have left this department literally useless.
  • Although a number of municipal ambulances with well-qualified personnel responded, there was no fire brigade response. A 77-year-old semi-retired doctor and former city councilman had been contracted to provide on-site medical assistance. His son, a municipal employee and as such prohibited from performing any other paid activities, was present, supposedly as a substitute for another doctor who was unable to attend.
  • Although the promoter has testified that an emergency evacuation plan had been created for the event, no authority has yet to testify that the document has been seen and/or read, or if it even exists.

There are many more questions yet to be answered regarding this tragedy, several of which have serious political implications:

  • Why was the promoter considered a "preferential" entity for municipal contracts when he owes thousands of euros to the state social security system, as well as more debts to the city itself? In declarations to the press, he strongly insinuated that he has "close ties" in city hall. In fact, he has an apparently exclusive contract with the arena's operator for several more similar events.
  • Who permitted access to thousands of people at around 3:30 a.m., none of whom had tickets to the event, through a purposely designed and indicated exit doors? A staff member was filmed liberating these doors.
  • Why was there no supervision or control of entry by under-age persons?
  • Why was there no control or verification of contents of handbags and backpacks at the entrance? A few minutes into the stampede, several flares were lit. There had been no control of these devices at the door and whoever brought them in entered with no difficulty.
  • Why were no crowd-control actions implemented when, from approximately 2:00 a.m., at least three stampedes by hundreds of people occurred, and were recorded on security closed-circuit TV?
  • Why was there no control over the movement of crowd at the time of the tragedy, taking into account the aforementioned stampedes?
  • The concert was allowed to continue until around 6:30 a.m., so as to avoid critical actions by the public, in the words of the organizer.

The promoter of this event is well known in Madrid's night-life scene. Several years ago, he attempted to re-open the Alcala 20 disco that suffered a tragic fire in 1983 that took 82 lives.

Several city officials have either been "relieved" of their duties or have resigned, while the mayor went off the day after the tragedy to a Portuguese spa with her husband, a former president of the Spanish government, for several days. She did however publicly state that this site and other municipal properties would no longer be allowed to be used for this type of events. Among the city officials affected by this incident are the manager of the municipal entity that manages Madrid Arena; the financial councilman who apparently was responsible for the contracts of the pavilion; and, the councilman responsible for the municipal police department, whose brother is the nation's economic minister, as well as the police chief himself. These and other persons have been summoned to testify in court.

This tragedy illustrates an all-too-common situation in Spain, political favoritism. In the last few years, a number graft and corruption cases have toppled politicians of nearly all of the country's major political parties. It also brings to light the fact that the fire services have no prominent competencies in regard to inspecting mass-public gathering locations and enforcing strict compliance with fire protection legislation and internal emergency response plans. It also illustrates the futile attempts of many senior fire officers in high tourist-concentration areas to control the massive overcrowding in discos and similar locales during the tourist season. The Madrid Arena incident took only five lives. It could have taken dozens, even hundreds of young, innocent victims.

George H. Potter is a practicing fire protection specialist who has lived in Spain for the past 45 years. He served as an Anne Arundel County, Maryland, volunteer firefighter with the Riva Volunteer Fire Department and the Independent Hose Company in Annapolis and as an ambulance driver with the Wheaton (MD) Rescue Squad. He served six years in the United States Air Force as a firefighter, an apparatus driver/operator, and a crew chief. He has been involved in fire protection system installation, mobile fire apparatus design, and construction and fire safety training. He is a Spain-certified fire service instructor and a hazmat specialist, and is a member of the Board of Governors of the Spanish Firefighters' Association (ASELF).

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