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Study focuses on fleeing crowds

Researchers say religious pilgrimages are often the scene of deadly human stampedes.

BY STEPHANIE BACKUS | WASHINGTON, DC | March 7, 2009


"It's surprising that compared to other disaster types, these receive relatively scant scientific attention"

—Dr. Edbert B. Hsu, Johns Hopkins University


Participants at the Emergency Management Summit in Washington, DC, this week got a lesson in human stampedes. Edbert B. Hsu, MD, MPH, led the session based on a study done by several researchers with Johns Hopkins Department of Emergency Medicine. The group of researchers looked at causes and features of stampedes.

"It's surprising that compared to other disaster types, these receive relatively scant scientific attention," Hsu said. "So our hope is that in terms of reviewing these types of recurrent disasters, we can better understand them in hopes of mitigating or preventing them."

The study found that when disasters occur, a speed of movement increases, leading people to push each other and have physical interactions. Hsu said one of the classical features of a disaster is a narrow area that most of the crowd is heading toward.

When large crowds are moving toward small openings, dangerous densities and pressures build, which can lead to a stampede which often produces injuries in the crowd when those moving slower are overtaken by people who are moving faster.

While researchers have looked at historic events, they also looked at specific cases from 1980-2007 and found that many stampedes are related to religious events.

"Religious events are a very frequent context for stampedes to occur," Hsu said. "In August 2005 during a Shia Pilgrimage near Baghdad, Iraq, there were rumors of a suicide bomber that triggered a stampede over a river bridge. Earlier that day there had been mortar rounds fired near the crowd leading to several deaths, so when there was a rumor of a terrorist event -- a suicide bomber -- this led to a crush of people many of whom were pushed over the river bridge into the Tigris and drowned. This resulted in 965 deaths.

According to Hsu, the research is only beginning on the impact of stampedes on humans and recognizing the possibility for a stampede exists is part of the battle to prevent them; but he feels there are other things that can be done to lessen these deadly events.

Hsu said structural changes need to be made in places where stampedes are likely, like a bridge recently built for pilgrims in Saudi Arabia during The Hajj.

"These (events) have not gone unnoticed by planners," he said. "Different types of interventions have been put into place. The construction of the new Jamaraat bridge cost $1.1 billion approximately. This is a new 4 level multi-story structure that's equipped with surveillance electronically, helipads as well as other various types of crowd control measures put in place."

The new bridge can handle 5 million pilgrims over a six hour period.

However, the group did not look at stampedes that happened during natural disasters such as fires or terrorist events like the September 11th tragedy. according to Hsu.

"The stampedes we saw were relatively infrequently associated with other types of disasters. We specifically excluded situations such as those including fire and terrorist attacks or bombings. For example the Rhode Island night club fire -- that becomes a little more complex because you have the added threat of fire. There certainly was a stampede, but it's difficult to separate those out from other events," said Hsu.


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