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The Dangers of Large Festival Crowds – Over 370 Die in Cambodia

Cambodia’s water festival is a joyous occasion for millions of people, but sadly it will be tainted for many years by the tragedy of the 2010 festival, where over 370 people were crushed to death when part of a dense crowd panicked.

Festivals in every corner of the world attract travellers and gappers in great numbers and rightly so, but anywhere large crowds gather there is inherent danger.

Let me not however put people off visiting and timing travel to coincide with festivals, they are one of the great cultural joys of travel; experiences filled with happiness, tradition, colour, music, fun and cultural significance. Many travellers will count their most amazing photographs, their most memorable experiences and their most significant encounters with local people during local festivals.

The management of large crowds is a very complicated science, studied by security specialist, academics and crowd management professionals over life-times. The world biggest events such as the Hajj in Saudi Arabia are organised by the world’s top experts in this field, because tragedies have occurred over the years resulting in many fatalities; the experts are winning the battle as the number of injuries and deaths at these type of events are falling.

It is sometimes during the national festivals where the organisation is somewhat lacking, because rather than there being one focal point where an organised event is taking place, they tend to be countrywide or citywide with millions taking part, at many different locations.

The risks during these national holidays also include road traffic accident and alcohol related incidents as exuberance gets out of hand; but it is where these excessive large crowds gather that the real danger lies.

In Cambodia nearly 2 million people gathered for the annual water festival. In its simplest terms crowd dynamics (as the science of crowd management is known) shows that much like a stone being thrown into a pool of water, when a small number of people panic and start to push to try and get away, people around them do the same and as the ripple grows, nothing can really be done to stop it unless, like a Tsunami, it reaches land (a break in or the edge of the crowd).

Anyone who has been to Wembley stadium or any similar large stadia, or gathering of people, will note how the police and stewards control a crowd; they break it down into component parts. Frustrating as this may seem when you are in a hurry to get home, there is good reason for it. It contains smaller manageable sections of a crowd and provides space for minor panics or disturbances to be controlled and not to ‘contaminate’ the crowd as a whole. The crowds in the Cambodian capital were about 25 times larger than a full house at Wembley…

The other principle of crowd dynamics is that if a crowd starts to push one way, it will inevitably push back with twice the force in the opposite direction. This vicious circle often continues until the energy is vented somehow, in smaller crowds there is usually the space either within the crowd itself or on the periphery of the crowd to absorb this additional energy.

When crowds are too dense or too large, there is no way for this energy to be absorbed and so it tends to stop only when one section of the crowd can no longer ‘respond’; because they are injured through crushing (against a solid obstruction or other people in the crowd); they have no leverage to respond because they have fallen to the ground or are injured; the momentum in one direction exceeds the force available to prevent it.

The inevitable result is crushing and crush injuries or fatalities. Crush injuries are not as visually obvious as others types of injury, much of the damage being done internally; but they are extremely dangerous and can very quickly turn from minor injury to fatality, with few obvious symptoms; this is often exasperated by the time it takes to reach casualties in these situations.


So what can you do to protect yourself in big crowds?

Obviously the key is not to get stuck in one in the first place; but even in relatively small crowds density is the important factor and even crowds of a few hundred when they are in a confined space can turn quickly into dangerous situations.

Not so long ago I was in a very well known large venue in the UK when the crowd management system broke down and two crowds of several hundred were trying to push past each other in a small space, it was quickly obvious that this could easily turn into a dangerous situation, especially when a few younger members of the crowd, oblivious to the potential dangers, started to agitate the crowd.

In dense crowds going forward or backwards is no option and even if you can it tends to make the situation worse. The key is to try and slide towards the edge of the crowd, not by turning into it, but by moving sideways at a ninety degree angle to the crowd’s momentum; if there is one side or the other where there is no physical insurmountable barrier, then that is the one to head towards.

But it is avoiding the situation in the first place which is the safest option. This does not mean you should avoid any crowd, but rather that you should be aware of the signs and symptoms of danger and if the signs start to show themselves, then take evasive action early; remember these situations develop quickly and once they start it is often too late to get out.


Watch out for the signs of danger:

  • Large uncontrolled crowds or where control seems heavy-handed and static, rather than fluid.
  • The density of the crowd growing; it can be an early indication of poor crowd control.
  • Obstructions (such as vehicles, street barriers etc.) in the way of the movement of the crowd; they will naturally increase the crowd density without slowing the momentum.
  • Crowds being guided towards areas enclosed by fixed structures where there is no escape route going forward.
  • Constriction of space; going from a wider space to a more constricted space, very much like when the motorway goes from 4 lanes to 2.
  • Smaller groups within a crowd involved in agitation; chanting, any type of aggression or even seemingly good natured ‘horse play’ getting physical.
  • Crowds growing in numbers exponentially.
  • External factors which may ‘spook’ parts of the crowd; such as the action of the police / army / private security, structural collapse or even a sudden change in the weather. 


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To view the original article – Cambodian stampede at water festival leaves 378 dead

Source – Metro 

Date – 23rd November 2010

Submitted by – Peter Mayhew