The festival seating arrangement in place when three youths were trampled to death at an AC/DC concert last week became regular operating procedure in spring 1988, at least partly because the Salt Palace was losing money on broken chairs, the Deseret News has learned.
And a former Salt Palace director on Friday defended festival seating, saying it is not dangerous as long as security is tight. Festival seating means concertgoers with general admission tickets are allowed to roam freely on the arena floor.Sam Driggs, a former Salt Palace director who now heads the Austin, Texas, convention center, said his decision to begin festival seating in 1988 was not made lightly.
"When we started festival seating it was done only after thoroughly examining every safety consideration," he said. "It was not an overnight decision."
He said seats on the arena floor could cause injuries. Concertgoers tend to stand on the seats or move them to an aisle.
But the free-standing arrangement turned deadly during the concert Jan. 18. Thousands of youths surged toward the stage, trampling to death Jimmie Boyd, 14; Curtis Child, 14; and Elizabeth Glausi, 19.
Since then, county officials have been unable to answer questions concerning when festival seating was started at the Salt Palace and who made the decision. Officials have been examining minutes from Salt Palace Advisory Board meetings of recent years, looking for references to the decision. But Driggs said the decision may have been made internally, without approval from any board.
The Deseret News has obtained minutes dated May 24, 1988, from a meeting of the Commission on Youth, a coalition of business people and others that examines issues involving youths and gives advice to Salt Lake County. During that meeting, Salt Palace Events Manager Chris Fessler, Security Director Gale McCurdy and promoter James C. McNeil made a presentation on "the change . . . from reserved seating to festival seating."
At that meeting, Salt Palace officials said festival seating did raise safety concerns, but "at the last concert there were 64 chairs damaged from kids standing on them, at a cost of $80 each."
According to the minutes, the Salt Palace officials said broken chairs can be dangerous for concertgoers. They said 15 to 20 people usually are injured at each concert regardless of seating, mostly from heat exhaustion.
Salt Palace officials attended a concert that year in Tucson, Ariz., that had festival seating. Large cement cones were used to break up the crowd. Driggs said the county purchased similar cones shortly afterward. Those were in place Jan. 18.
McNeil said he had used festival seating arrangements "off and on" at some of his Salt Palace concerts since 1985, the minutes say. This week, officials at McNeil's United Concerts have declined to comment on matters concerning the tragedy.
Carol Vorhees, chairwoman of the Commission on Youth, recalled that commission members were not impressed by the county's reasons for allowing festival seating. "They felt they could save money on chairs," she said Friday. "They tried to convince us that these cones would be safer than the chairs."
Since then, Vorhees and other commission members have attended concerts to see how the cones work. "It is not a good scene," she said. "Mob psychology works whenever you get kids together."
In reaction to last week's tragedy, Spectacor, the company that now runs the Salt Palace, announced earlier this week it is abandoning festival seating until a Salt Lake County attorney's investigation is finished. Reserved seats will be sold on the arena floor at future concerts.
Despite that action, Spectacor officials said Friday they won't blame festival seating for the tragedy - at least not until the investigation is finished. The company did not run the facility at the time the county started festival seating.
"There has been some speculation, which we don't necessarily buy into, that there's something inherently wrong with festival seating," said Stephen J. Greenberg, vice president and executive producer of Spectacor Management Group. "We thought it might be appropriate to go back to reserved seating for the time being. In no way does this mean we believe the old policy was bad."
Greenberg said Spectacor may continue to allow such seating arrangements in other arenas it manages, such as one in Richmond, Va.
Minutes of a meeting June 28, 1988, say the commission passed a motion expressing its concerns about the dangers of festival seating and asked for more accurate information.
"Questions were still asked relative to motivation for festival seating priority and the Salt Palace, i.e. economics vs. what's best for kids," the minutes say.
On Nov. 22, 1988, Fessler returned to the Commission on Youth to explain that the Salt Palace had installed several crowd-control techniques. He said the facility had beefed up security, installed 12 cone-shaped barriers on the floor and staffed with security guards, redesigned barricades around the stage, installed waiting rooms for parents and was considering hiring counselors to help youths experiencing problems.
Responsible rock 'n roll
Local radio disc jockeys soon may be asked to tell young people to act responsibly at rock concerts.
Officials from Spectacor, the Philadelphia company that operates the Salt Palace and several other arenas nationwide, said Friday they hope radio personalities will help prevent tragedies similar to the trampling deaths of three teenagers at a recent concert.
"Young people come to these concerts, and they feel invincible. Sometimes, when you're young and immature, you put on blinders. It becomes an attitude problem," said Stephen J. Greenberg, vice president and executive producer at Spectacor.
He said he believes radio personalities can get the message through in ways other authorities can't.
"We're going to develop some kind of program with rock stations to let people know that it's great to go to rock concerts, but do it in a safe manner."
Greenberg said a similar campaign worked several years ago when he was director of the Spectrum, Philadelphia's main arena. At that time, concertgoers were in the habit of lighting firecrackers and tossing them onstage. One concert ended early when a drummer's hand was burned.
"We went to the local media and got on-air personalities to talk about it," he said, adding that the problem soon stopped.