Nov. 18—Medic Alex Pollak didn’t see anything amiss as he stood in the “pit” — a sealed-off section between the stage and the crowd — and rapper Travis Scott hit the stage the night of the Astroworld Festival in Houston. Then his handheld radio came alive: The medical tent was filling with cardiac arrest patients pulled from the crowd.
Pollak rushed over to see two patients being worked on, including Ezra Blount, 9. He was relieved when medics regained a pulse and heartbeat in the unconscious boy, he said.
His radio burst with anxious medics reporting more cardiac arrest patients in the crowd.
Patients soon filled nearly all 30 cots in the medical tent or were splayed on the ground, as teams of medics intubated them and inserted IVs, said Pollak, founder of ParaDocs Worldwide, the New York-based company providing medical services at the Astroworld Festival.
Besides cardiac arrests, medics worked on overdoses or injuries from being crushed in the crowd. Several patients were in their teens or early 20s. Medics conducted CPR on 11 cardiac arrest patients at once, including Ezra, Pollak said.
All but one of them died.
Pollak was a paramedic on scene in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City and responded to the US Airways emergency landing in the Hudson River in 2009. But the scene unfolding in the medical tent rattled him, he said.
“No one could be prepared for seeing so many young people receiving CPR,” Pollak said in an interview with USA TODAY. “I don’t know of anyone who has seen that.”
The Astroworld Festival is one of the deadliest concerts in U.S. history.
Houston police launched a criminal investigation into the event, and lawsuits have been filed against Scott and Live Nation Entertainment, the promoters. Part of the investigation will focus on how medical teams responded to the emergency. ParaDocs was contracted by Live Nation to provide medical response.
Pollak described a chaotic scene in which ParaDocs medics repeatedly ran into the crushing crowds to retrieve unconscious concertgoers and worked alongside Houston Fire Department medics to save lives.
“It was a great team effort,” he said.
Houston fire officials painted a slightly different picture of ParaDocs medics, whom they said worked hard to treat patients but were overwhelmed and underprepared for the deluge of crushed and dying patients.
Fire officials called in reinforcements after struggling to communicate with ParaDocs during the crisis and assumed they were overrun by the unfolding catastrophe, said Houston Fire Deputy Chief Isaac Garcia, who was at the scene. The Houston firefighters’ union has lobbied for years to mandate a larger firefighter presence at large events.
“We’re not getting enough information from ParaDocs,” Garcia recalled. “Because we’re not hearing from them, it makes us believe they’re getting overwhelmed, they’re getting inundated with calls.”
Pollak said his company has provided medical services to hundreds of music festivals. ParaDocs officials arrived the day before the event to set up the medical tent and go over plans.
At the festival, a command center trailer was erected outside festival grounds, where representatives from ParaDocs, festival security and Harris County Emergency Corps, a private company that runs the county’s 911 emergency dispatch system and oversaw five ambulances at the festival, shared information and listened in on radio traffic between the entities, Pollak said. In another incident command trailer on the sprawling grounds, Houston fire officials listened in on some of that chatter.
Houston fire officials estimated there were about 50 ParaDocs medical personnel that day, but Pollak said it was “more than 70,” a mix of full-time ParaDocs staffers and contracted paramedics and doctors, including an experienced emergency room physician and several military veterans with combat experience.
“We have so much experience doing this,” he said. “We’re very fast at treating and very good at treating.”
Even before the festival’s gates opened around 10 a.m. Nov. 5, Houston fire and police officials noticed hoards of rowdy concertgoers busting past barricades to get in, injuring some in the process. Vendors selling merchandise had to be temporarily shut down when crowds surged toward the tables. A Houston Fire Department log of events, obtained by USA TODAY, showed ParaDocs had treated nearly 300 concertgoers before Scott took the stage.
Pollak said that is not an unusually high number for a festival of more than 55,000 people, and he and his team didn’t detect anything out of the ordinary in the run-up to Scott’s show.
In the medical tent, Pollak watched as medics worked on Ezra, one of the day’s youngest victims. When they gained a pulse on him, it buoyed spirits of first responders, he said.
“That kept us going,” Pollak said. “We gave him a fighting chance.”
Ezra died Sunday after being placed in a medically induced coma at a Houston hospital. He had gone to the concert with his father, and they were both swept into the melee as thousands surged toward the stage during Scott’s performance.
ParaDocs medics waded into the crowds to help revive unconscious attendees, rushed them to safety, then returned for more patients, repeatedly putting their own lives at risk, Pollak said. Each time a team of medics would near the crowd, a fan would grab one of them to tell them someone else needed help, he said.
“They were crying, they were wiping off tears and they were jumping back into the crowds,” Pollak said. “Every single one of them did their darnedest.”
A ParaDocs medical cart waded into the crowds to retrieve an injured concertgoer. As medics worked on the patient in the back of the cart, a concertgoer jumped on the vehicle’s roof, and the crew struggled to exit, Pollak said. Videos by concertgoers captured the scene.
“That’s where we were desperate,” he said, “going into the mob and pulling out patients.”
ParaDocs officials were busy with patients but did not communicate their needs to other agencies, Garcia said.
Pollak disputed that claim, saying he was in charge inside the tent and passed along information to the ParaDocs dispatcher at the command center. He ordered all nonessential workers out of the tent to make room for more patients, he said.
Pollak conceded that Houston fire officials helped in an increasingly dire situation, but he said his medics were trained and fully equipped to face the challenges that night.
Pollak, like much of his medical staff, has not been able to shake the images of young, unconscious people littered on the ground of the tent that night, while teams of medics worked frantically to revive their quiet, unbeating hearts.
“It’s not something any one of us will ever forget,” he said.
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