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The Who returns to Cincinnati Sunday, 43 years after historic tragedy

Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend
Amy Harris
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Invision/AP
Roger Daltrey, left, and Pete Townshend of The Who performs at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, on Saturday, April 30, 2022, in New Orleans.

Rock band The Who returns to Cincinnati Sunday for the first time, more than 40 years after a tragic incident left 11 people dead.

While The Who performed inside Cincinnati's Riverfront Coliseum on Dec. 3, 1979, some two dozen people outside were injured and 11 died in a chaotic crush to get through the doors. The city outlawed festival seating within a month of the incident.

John Hutchins was at the concert, and is part of a group that created a memorial scholarship honoring those who died. He helped bring The Who back to Cincinnati.

"We have a story to tell that started off very tragically, but we refuse to allow the last chapter to be the tragedy," he says.

The band didn't learn of the deaths until after the concert. Guitarist Pete Townshend has said he regrets the decision to continue the tour in 1979.

Hutchins says the tragedy shouldn't be the last chapter.

"Spring forward 43 years and here we are — Pete (Townshend) and Roger (Daltrey) are coming to town (with) their band manager, Bill Curbishley, who are all looking for healing as well. So, as a city, we will heal together," says Hutchins. "I think it's just helping all involved. I think we're all really excited to put this final chapter on just an amazing story."

the who cincinnati
Brian Horton
/
AP
A security guard and an unidentified man look at an area where several people were killed as they were caught in a surging crowd entering Cincinnati's Riverfront Coliseum for a Who concert on Dec. 3, 1979.

The concert was first announced in December 2019.

"What I want to say is that we'll be there," band member Pete Townshend told WCPO-TV. "And having said that, now, we'll just have to come."

That return, scheduled for April 2020, was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. On Sunday, the band takes the stage at TQL Stadium, less than two miles from the site of the crowd disaster.

Hutchins was a 17-year-old high school senior in 1979, skipping school to see one of his favorite bands.

"The reason we got down there so early is because of the festival seating, we know it's first come, first served," Hutchins told WVXU in 2019.

The crowd swelled and pushed, resulting in a crushing wave as only a few doors were opened.

"We held off by, you know, just holding ourselves up against doors, against the bars. We did anything we could do just to just to go ahead and protect ourselves because, you know, our feet were off the ground at points," Hutchins describes.

Three of Hutchins' classmates died in the ensuing chaos. He and several others created the P.E.M. Memorial and a scholarship fund for students at the high school they attended. A portion of Sunday's concert proceeds will benefit the fund.

The name, P.E.M., represents the last initials of Stephan Preston, Jackie Eckerle, and Karen Morrison.

Also killed that day were: Walter Adams, Jr., Peter Bowes, Connie Sue Burns, David Heck, Teva Rae Ladd, Philip Snyder, Bryan Wagner, and James Warmoth.

who_vigil_luminaries_ronny.jpg
Ronny Salerno
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Luminaries from a 2009 memorial vigil on the 30th anniversary of The Who tragedy in Cincinnati.

To date, the P.E.M. Memorial Committee reports it has handed out tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships.

Despite the events in 1979, industry experts say concert safety hasn't improved much.

Paul Wertheimer was Cincinnati's public information officer at the time. He now runs a crowd control consulting firm, Crowd Management Strategies. Speaking by Skype in 2019, he told WVXU problems persist.

"It's still a fight for crowd safety at live entertainment events. And the fight is usually against bands, promoters, venues and others related to the event itself."

Just last year, in 2021, eight people died and several hundred were injured when the crowd at a Travis Scott concert in Texas turned dangerous. Three people were trampled and hospitalized at the same event — the Astroworld festival — in 2019 after concert-goers busted through barricades to get into the venue.

Wertheimer told NPR that given Scott's audience's track record at other shows, the concert organizers, Live Nation, should have anticipated there would be some dangerous crowd behavior. Texas later formed a task force to review concert safety.

Live Nation bills itself as "the world’s leading live entertainment company." It's also the group behind The Who's current The Who Hits Back! Tour.