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Texas creates concert safety task force; El Paso expert cites need to learn from Astroworld deaths

HOUSTON, Texas -- A statewide task force will look for ways to beef up security at Texas concerts after the deaths of nine attendees at rapper Travis Scott’s performance during Astroworld Festival in Houston, Gov. Greg Abbott has announced. The death count grew from eight to nine on Thursday when a hospitalized Texas A&M student died form her injuries.

When it comes to large concerts or events like Scott's show, which drew a sold-out crowd estimated at 50,000 people, the state appears to have little oversight. The responsibility for overseeing big events falls primarily to cities, which often task multiple departments with making sure the events are safe for attendees.

Brian Kennedy, who has more than two decades of experience in showbusiness and music festivals overseeing the El Paso County Coliseum, told ABC-7 that concerts in El Paso and elsewhere in the state need to learn from the mistakes made in Houston.

Abbott’s task force, led by Texas Music Office Director Brendon Anthony, will be made up of safety consultants, music industry experts and law enforcement officials who are tasked with coming up with recommendations to improve concert safety.

“Live music is a source of joy, entertainment, and community for so many Texans — and the last thing concertgoers should have to worry about is their safety and security,” Abbott said in a statement.

In Texas cities, permitting for big gatherings like concerts and sporting events is spread across multiple city departments such as fire, police and health — a decentralized process that has made it difficult for officials in Houston and Harris County to pinpoint who exactly was responsible for making sure the Astroworld Festival went off without a hitch.

The city’s police department, which also staffed the event, is conducting a criminal investigation into the deaths of the concert attendees, who died when the crowd surged toward the stage at NRG Park. City departments are doing their own internal reviews of what went wrong, Mayor Sylvester Turner told reporters Tuesday.

“There are a number of agencies that are looking at what took place on Friday,” Turner said. “I am certain that changes will be made.”

Meanwhile, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has called for “an objective and independent investigation into what happened,” raising the idea of hiring an outside party to sort out where the accountability lies.

Cities usually require event planners to have a certain number of medical professionals and security officers on site. But different cities have different requirements.

El Paso's Kennedy said his best advice to a promoter or artist is to over-prepare for a show to avoid trouble. And he said that means investing in more resources than you think you'll need - from having more EMTs along with multiple treatment areas, a larger security presence, and numerous routes for emergency crews to reach the injured.

"In Houston, I know the crowds came in from the sides, not necessarily from back to front. So, when you start to get that crowd compression, you can’t get somebody through there - you almost have to have another entrance from the other side, whether its over the stage or everything else,” Kennedy said.

In the case of Astroworld, the situation is even trickier.

NRG Park, the Astroworld venue, sits on property owned by Harris County, and a private corporation whose board is appointed by county commissioners oversees the park and serves as advisers to event promoters. But the county doesn’t issue permits for events at NRG, a spokesperson for Hidalgo said.

The concert obtained permits from the mayor’s office to close a street and from the fire and health departments to put up tents, set off fireworks and serve food.

Houston police officers and firefighters staffed the concert Friday alongside private medical and security providers — and a 56-page event operations plan for the Astroworld festival obtained by The Texas Tribune places the event under the jurisdiction of Houston’s fire and police departments.

Houston Police Chief Troy Finner met with Scott and his head of security to raise safety concerns before the concert, Finner said in a statement posted to TwitterAccording to The New York Times, Finner was worried about the crowd’s energy after attendees had stormed through an entrance earlier in the day.

The festival’s executive producer and festival director had the authority to shut down the show, according to the operations plan. After the tragedy, Finner said publicly that he feared that shutting down the event after it became clear that attendees were in peril would have sparked an uncontrollable riot.

A Houston Police Department spokesperson declined to comment.

El Paso's Kennedy firmly believes what should have happened was to stop the show the moment the concert was deemed a mass casualty event.

"It was about 9:38 at night when the mass casualty event was declared and the music continued until 10:10 - and normally as soon as you have an ambulance responding at a mass casualty like that, everything stops because then you can use the sound system from the stage to give instructions,” Kennedy explained.

The calamity has sparked dozens of lawsuits by attendees — hundreds of whom were injured in the surge — primarily against Scott as well as Live Nation, a prominent entertainment company behind the festival, rather than local government agencies.

“Once the permit is given, all responsibilities are passed” to the event runners, said Benny Agosto, a lawyer representing two adults and two minors who said they were trampled at the concert and have sued Scott; Scott’s record label, Cactus Jack; and concert promoter ScoreMore.

When it comes to large promoters like Live Nation, officials who grant permits often trust that the companies know what they’re doing, said Steve Allen, a U.K.-based event security consultant with the firm Crowd Safety — though hundreds of people have died or been injured at Live Nation events in the past, according to the Houston Chronicle.

“This isn’t some two-bit company,” Allen said.

KVIA ABC-7

Texas Tribune

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