It’s been a week since the tragic events of Travis Scott’s Astroworld concert, where a frenzied crowd of nearly 50,000 people surged toward the stage to get a better view of the rapper, resulting in nine festivalgoers being trampled to death and a 9-year-old boy in a medically induced coma.
But nearly 30 years ago, a similar tragedy occurred at a Harlem basement gymnasium, where a dangerous stampede broke out when an oversized crowd tried to get a glimpse of celebrities at a basketball charity event that was organized by a then-small-time promoter going by the name of Puff Daddy—better known today as Diddy, or Sean Combs.
By the end of Dec. 28, 1991, nine people were dead and at least 29 others were injured after an impatient crowd tried to push their way into a City College gym to catch the game, which members of Boyz II Men, Run-DMC, Jodeci, Heavy D, and Big Daddy Kane were playing in.
Thirty years on, Sharmayne Jones, now 50, says she still feels deeply affected by what transpired that night, saying she can count on one hand how many large-scale events she has attended since.
“I still find myself traumatized,” she tells The Daily Beast. “If I go to a concert, if I’m not in the first five rows, I’m not going. I don’t do large crowds; I don’t do larger rooms.”
“Even to this day, I still have lower back pain from that,” she adds. “I didn’t want to go to the hospital because I was just like, ‘I’m OK, some people lost their lives—at the end of the day I’m alive and I have my life.’ But that’s definitely something that I had nightmares for weeks, because the screaming, people were looking for their friends, it was a horror show.”
Jones had turned up to the City College campus in Harlem to watch the game at the gym, which had a capacity of 2,700. However, at least 5,000 people had shown up trying to nab one of the 1,200 tickets that were being sold at the door for $20, according to a New York Times report.
There had been two lines set up—one for attendees who had purchased tickets in advance and another for those who were buying tickets at the door.
The two lines snaked their way into the building, leading to the building’s lobby, down a set of stairs to the gym in the basement, which was separated from the landing by four metal doors. However, only one door remained open for organizers to collect tickets and frisk attendees. The slow process was aggravating the crowd, with small fights erupting as the game’s 6 p.m. tip-off time approached. When the bleachers were nearly filled and the game still hadn’t started by 7 p.m., tensions reached a boiling point.
When organizers decided to close the doors to the building’s entrance, pandemonium erupted, as those outside rushed to get in, creating a disastrous ripple effect as a sea of people shoved their way inside, pushing those in front of them through glass windows, toppling people down the stairwell, and causing those at the bottom of the stairs to collapse or surge toward the gym doors.
Jones says she ended up being pushed through a glass windowpane as people piled on top of her, and she couldn’t breathe.
“How we survived is, myself and my two friends, we got into a bathroom stall,” Jones explains. “There were literally people that were laying on the ground and the three of us got into a bathroom stall, and we hid in the bathroom until everything died down.”
Before leaving for the event, Jones says she’d stuck a tangerine in the pocket of her leather jacket meaning to eat it beforehand, but never got the chance. “When we finally got out of there, I reached into my pocket and there was nothing left but the skin of the tangerine,” she recalls. “It stained my lovely jacket, and I kept that jacket for years, as a reminder.”
Meanwhile, down at the bottom of the stairs, the ticket collector at the gym door saw the chaos beginning to break out as people tried to fight their way inside. They proceeded to get up, go inside the gym and shut the door, which could only be opened outwards.
The crowd at the bottom of the stairs had nowhere to go and were slammed up against the doors by unaware people at the top of the stairs, who continued to press forward. Injured people were strewn about at the bottom of the stairwell, being trampled upon, fainting, or both
It took an agonizing 15 minutes before anyone realized what was going on, according to the Washington Post. In fact, the game was still in full swing. When the doors to the gym finally opened, those inside said people had been pressed up against the walls, “packed in like sardines.”
An announcement came over the intercom that three people had died and the game was now cancelled, instructing people to leave the area—triggering another stampede as people rushed to leave the gym.
“People started running,” attendee Darrell Frederick told the Times. “People were pushing down other people. People on the bottom were getting trampled. People jumped off the bleachers and crushed them.”
Lynette Delane, then 18, also attended the fatal event, telling the Times in 1991, “A girl was sitting up on my chest. She wasn’t even conscious. I just thank God I’m still alive. No one even cared. They wouldn’t stop pushing.”
Today, Delane still feels lucky to have escaped from that building, telling The Daily Beast that she has managed to press forward. “I just think I’m a very resilient person,” she says. “And I was grateful to have survived that situation.”
Both Delane and Jones expressed regret and astonishment that something so devastating and preventable could still have happened thirty years on from the stampede that they found themselves swept up in.
Common threads link the two events: each was oversold and at capacity when people surged forward, there was a lack of security measures in place, and not enough security guards who were properly trained. And both tragedies resulted in nine people dead.
“They need to take these events more seriously,” Delane says. “As far as planning, making sure that you have the measures in place to ensure that it doesn’t exceed capacity. At the end of the day, they are putting people’s lives in danger.”
“They should have protocols in place so something like this doesn’t happen again,” Jones says, adding that attending a concert shouldn’t mean you run the risk of being trampled because of a lack of crowd control.
In regard to Scott, who thus far has been hit with more than 40 lawsuits and has to defend himself against several previous examples of him encouraging his fans to bypass security and leap from balconies, Jones feel it’s possible for his career to continue, but only if he takes appropriate measures to address the harm that he allegedly played a role in.
She points to Combs, who at the time was a relatively unknown rap promoter and is now an influential and respected Grammy-winning artist, producer, and entrepreneur with a net worth of around $800 million.
“It does not take an Einstein to know that young people attending a rap concert camouflaged as a ‘celebrity basketball game,’ who have paid as much as $20 a ticket, would not be very happy and easy to control if they were unable to gain admission to the event because it was oversold,” New York state Judge Louis C. Benza wrote in a 1999 decision that ruled Combs was partly responsible and could be held liable for damages in a civil suit.
Combs has addressed his culpability in the Harlem stampede, saying in 1998, “City College is something I deal with every day of my life. But the things that I deal with can in no way measure up to the pain that the families deal with. I just pray for the families and pray for the children who lost their lives every day.”
For Scott to make things right, beyond giving ticket refunds, paying for funeral expenses, and offering free therapy for those traumatized, Jones believes that he needs to take some accountability, although she does commend the rapper for providing free therapy, wishing that the service was available in 1991.
“I think he needs to take ownership and probably needs to take some sensitivity training,” she reasons. “If he hasn’t, he needs to make amends. Obviously, there’s no way he can bring back the people that have lost their lives, but he needs to try to reach out to their families and see if there’s something that he can do to help their families.”
But Jones argues that those in attendance at Astroworld also need to hold themselves accountable for how they may have contributed to the catastrophe, recalling that during the City College stampede, people seemed to only be concerned about themselves.
Delane agrees: “I’m a human being, you’re a human being—if we’re all at an event and capacity is exceeded, we just have some courtesy, care, and consideration for other human beings.”
“I think when you start at that basic level, that’ll help minimize the situation. As individuals, we have all the responsibility. Have some compassion for your neighbor so things don’t get so out of control.
“I felt back then, everyone was just thinking about themselves and what they wanted,” she adds. “You know, ‘I want to see this artist, or I want to be part of this event’ and not considering the full picture. These are lives, human beings. It’s real. Once something like this happens, you can’t take it back.”