N.Y. officials begin to untangle events that left 8 crushed to death in Harlem

December 30, 1991|By Robert D. McFadden | Robert D. McFadden,New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- Stunned elected leaders and police, medical and City University officials began sweeping inquiries yesterday to try to explain a nightmarish stampede that left eight young people trampled or crushed to death and 29 others injured at the doorway of a City College gymnasium Saturday night at a charity basketball game featuring rap stars.

New Yorkers tried to absorb the fearful images of a crowd of

pushing, shoving rap fans; of victims trapped in a small stairwell, screaming, passing out, being crushed while others sought autographs amid the carnage or laughed in their ignorance.

"People were just going crazy," said Sharmayne Jones, 20, of the Bronx. "They shoved and shoved and shoved. They were on top of me, and I couldn't breathe."

The stampede occurred about 7 p.m. at Jeremiah T. Mahoney Hall on the City College campus at 138th Street and Convent Avenue. Witnesses said a crowd of thousands funneling into an already jammed gymnasium surged forward, pressing those ahead.

Like a deadly human wave, the pressure moved through the crowd, down a stairway and into a well before a single door open for ticket-holders. There, out of sight of the mass of humanity above, the victims were buried, crushed and smothered to death.

"There were three people under me and two on top," said Keenan Gray, 20, of Queens. "I was stuck for 20 minutes."

"A girl was sitting up on my chest," said Lynette Delane, 18, of Paterson, N.J. "She wasn't even conscious. I just thank God I'm still alive. No one even cared. They wouldn't stop pushing."

Yesterday, Mayor David N. Dinkins appointed a task force of top officials to investigate the incident, and City University officials began a separate investigation.

"We have some of the same questions you have," Mr. Dinkins said at a news conference. He said several times that he understood the game was "oversold," but he declined to assess blame. "We're going to find out why it happened, how it happened, who's responsible, if someone was derelict."

Many facts surrounding the tragedy began to come into focus yesterday.

Officials said, for example, that as many as 5,000 fans tried to get into an event that could handle no more than 2,700; that gate-crashers may have sparked the stampede; that 66 police ** officers were there, but none was inside at the crucial moment; and that private security guards in the gym, even after recognizing there was a tragedy in the making, could not open more doors to relieve the pressure because the doors opened toward the crush.

Officials noted that the tragedy was so isolated in the stairwell that the basketball game was being played inside and confusion reigned on the landing above and that hardly anyone knew it was happening until it was all over.

Officials and witnesses also said that Emergency Medical Service workers did not arrive until a half-hour after the stampede and then were mobbed trying to reach the victims.

Lynn Schulman, an EMS spokeswoman, said the first call, at 7:17 p.m., did not suggest the seriousness of what was happening, and it was not until 7:30 p.m. that it became a high priority.

Witnesses, meantime, told of a crowd of teen-agers and young )) people that degenerated into a mob of rowdy, tough-talking youths who cut lines and vowed to rush the doors when they opened.

The request to hold what was billed as the first annual Heavy D and Puff Daddy Celebrity Charity Basketball Game was made to City College officials on Dec. 1 by the Evening Student Government.

The application did not specify the size of the expected audience, but school officials expected a sellout crowd for a gym that holds 2,700 people in its bleachers. About 1,500 tickets had been sold by last Friday for $12 each; the other 1,200 were to be sold at the door for $20. Handbills said the profits were to be donated to the AIDS Education Outreach Program.

The crowd began to gather outside the gymnasium on Convent Avenue about 3 p.m. By 5 p.m., when the first police contingent arrived, the crowd had swelled to thousands and they were milling about and disorganized, the Police Department's chief of patrol, Mario A. Selvaggi, said.

The doors opened shortly after 5 p.m. Two lines were formed, one for ticket-holders and another for those who would buy their tickets inside. Many witnesses said, however, that hundreds of people without tickets began to cut into the lines, pushing and shoving, growing rowdier by the minute.

For more than an hour, as tensions mounted and occasional fights broke out, each line funneled through a separate entrance of double glass doors at the street level, then moved through a glass-walled lobby and down a 12-foot-wide staircase to the basement level entrance to the gymnasium.

On the basement landing was a row of four orange metal doors -- each opening toward the incoming crowd -- but only one door was kept open, allowing first the ticket-holders and then those who were buying tickets to go through singly or in small groups.

The game was to start at 6 p.m., but as 7 o'clock approached, it had not begun, the stands were almost filled to capacity, the lines had almost stopped moving, and witnesses said there were more than 2,000 people still outside, waiting to get in. The game finally began.

What touched off the stampede was still unclear yesterday.

The pressure moved like a wave of humanity through the crowd. A glass door in the lobby shattered as the wave squeezed through the mass of hot, sweating people in the lobby and down the jam-packed stairwell, where the crush was greatest.

At the bottom of the stairs, people began to falter under the crush.

Many in the bleachers were watching the game, which had begun, and were oblivious to what was happening at the door. Then, an announcement came over the public address system. The game would be canceled, it said, because three people had died outside.

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