The crush of an anxious crowd pressed Matt Wergers and his girlfriend through a glass door on the Riverfront Coliseum plaza in Cincinnati. Then, Wergers remembers, the duo ran through the turnstiles into the arena, where they thought British rock legends The Who had started playing.
“I hate to say this today — sorry, police officer — I slammed a cop to get us out of the way and we went running into the show,” said Wergers, who was one of several friends from Finneytown High School gathered at the coliseum for the highly anticipated concert.
The 18-year-old Wergers had just survived a life-or-death drama on the plaza. But he didn’t foresee what he would encounter next.
“Got her seated,” Wergers said, “and I came back down looking for the rest of the group and that’s when I found one of our friends, Cindy Meade, lying on the floor with no shoes, her purse gone, her coat gone, crying on the floor with a pile of other people’s belongings laying everywhere. And multiple people running through that same glass window.”
They were among the lucky ones that night.
Forty years later, four Finneytown schoolmates who survived the tragedy outside The Who concert on Dec. 3, 1979, along with family members of four of the 11 victims — three from Finneytown — recently shared their stories to mark the anniversary. Rock legends Peter Townshend and Roger Daltrey of The Who, and the band’s manager, Bill Curbishley, also spoke to WCPO to mark the anniversary.
Warning: The next photo may make some readers uneasy.
Tammy Hart Fales and Steve Upson also attended Finneytown High and were at the concert that night. Hart Fales said she fell in the suffocating, tight crowd and feared she would be trampled. She had already seen the blue face of a helpless teen in a pile of people on the ground.
But Hart Fales was with another Finneytown friend, Stephan Preston, who had brought his tall and muscular college roommate, whom Hart Fales and Upson remember as Doug. She said Doug pulled her up and led her and Upson out of danger.
“We were getting pushed, so we had to put our feet out and step on people to keep from going on the pile, too,” Upson said. “So it was that crazy and the only thing was to exit. If we would have stayed any longer, we would have been ...”
Tammy Hart Fales: “Hurt.”
Steve Upson: “We would have been 13 or 14 or whatever the number.”
That night, 11 young people from the Cincinnati area were crushed by the crowd outside the coliseum and died of asphyxiation.
The 19-year-old Preston, who was short and had a slight build, had locked arms with his roommate, Hart Fales said. But Preston still got separated in the crowd movement. Later, Preston’s mother, watching the TV coverage at home, recognized something and realized her worst fear.
“I saw them carrying a kid out of the front and I said, ‘Those are Stephan’s shoes,’ ” Anne Votaw said. “And when my husband got home, I told him and he said, ‘No, no. You’re just jumping to conclusions.’ And that whole night, I didn’t sleep at all, of course, because he didn’t come home.”
One of Jackie Eckerle’s three older sisters, Annie Hagerman, had gone to her family’s house to wait for Jackie to come home when she saw a police cruiser driving slowly by. Hagerman waved it down.
“I said, ‘Are you looking for an address?’ And they said, 'yes,' and it was ours,” she said. “They took me down to the morgue. I identified her and then I had to call home and then they brought me home.”
Eckerle and her friend Karen Morrison, both 15-year-old Finneytown sophomores, had gone to the concert together. It was to be Morrison’s first concert. They were standing with Preston and the others before the crowd pulled Eckerle and Morrison away, Hart Fales said.
Preston’s mother said she thinks her son saw Eckerle in trouble and tried to save her.
“I think Jackie went down in front of him. And he went down to help her up and never made it up,” Votaw said. “The two of them died right together. One on top of the other.”
“Everyone was just squeezed to death,” said David Votaw, Preston’s stepfather. “I suspect they were all gone before the doors were opened.”
“I would never have imagined people getting killed just getting into a concert,” Upson said. “Festival seating got a lot of the blame, but to me, it was more they didn’t open enough doors.”
This story tells what happened on that horrific night in their own words — what Wergers, Hart Fales, Upson and a fourth Finneytown survivor, Mike Simkin, saw and felt. Also included are their painful memories and those of family members of their three young friends — Preston, Eckerle and Morrison — and 18-year-old Peter Bowes of Wyoming, who didn’t come home.
Why Everybody Was Hot To See The Who
Mike Simkin: “The Who spoke directly to us. Their music. Their lyrics. The energy in their music. And it just didn't get any bigger than The Who.”
Matt Wergers: “They were one of the biggest bands that everybody wanted to see. And when The Who was on the radio, you cranked your radio up and you drove around Finneytown. And you wanted everyone to know that you were listening to The Who. It was a big thing.”
Steve Upson: “It was just one of the go-to bands, like the Rolling Stones and The Who. You just put it in your repertoire of being there.”
Tammy Hart Fales: “The Who, the beat, the words, just kind of got to me. And I still listen to The Who. I go to their concerts when I can. It’s just been with me for forever. It’s the words. It’s what they’re saying, it’s what they are talking about.”
Mike Simkin: “They’re coming to Cincinnati, and the second we heard about it, we were just beyond excited.”
Matt Wergers: “Back in those days we’d camp. We got there at noon on show day to get ready to go for the concert that was later on that evening.”
Mike Simkin: “And once we had those tickets, it was like gold. I felt like putting it in a safety deposit box. It was really … the anticipation was amazing.”
Tickets sold out weeks in advance for $10 apiece. The arena held more than 18,000 people. Lines formed outside hours before the show was slated to start at 8 p.m.
Concert Day And The Excitement Peaks
Anne Votaw, Stephan Preston’s mother: “Stephan was in the middle of braces. He had an orthodontic appointment the morning of The Who.
“I said, ‘I want you to attend your appointment tomorrow morning.’
“And he said, ‘I’m not going.’
“And I said, ‘What do you mean you’re not going?'
“And he said, ‘Because I want to be first for the festival seating at The Who concert.’
“And that was the last time I talked to him. He was (adamant) about going. He wanted to be first in line. He wanted to be first in line by the door.”
Eckerle was the youngest of four girls in her family. Her older sisters remember how excited she was to be going to see The Who with Morrison.
Karen Eckerle, Jackie Eckerle’s sister: “For months. Every day. ‘I can’t wait till The Who concert.' And we were like, ‘Ohhhhh.’ Jackie and Karen came to the school nurse’s office that day. They couldn’t concentrate in their classes because they were so excited and she just told them to lay down and relax. She said they were so cute. And that was the last time she saw them.”
Mike Simkin: “There were five of us who went down together. And we always parked in the same spot when we went down for concerts, which was under one of the bridges before they redid Sawyer Point.”
Matt Wergers: “It was a free-for-all is basically what it was … There was a lot of people juiced up, ready to go see this show.”
Mike Simkin: “There were people who were starting to push from the back a little bit. I remember there was a group of kids who thought it was a joke to just run and jump up into the crowd.”
Mike Simkin: “There was just a lot of energy going on, and in the meantime you had no pressure valve to open. You had the doors remain shut, but still it was a crowd that we were kind of familiar with.”
Mike Simkin: “The crowd got bigger, more boisterous. Next thing you know, you’re kind of fighting to keep your feet on the ground a little bit, you’re moving involuntarily a little bit.”
Trouble Brewing On The Plaza
Steve Upson: “Saw the crowd was getting bigger. It was probably 6 o’clock when we got down there. Two hours before the show. Eventually went over and got in line, basically.”
Tammy Hart Fales: “I don’t think it was quite a line. It was people mashed … because, at the time, you didn’t know which doors were going to open.”
Tammy Hart Fales: “Jackie and Karen and Steve, I remember seeing them. They were probably 6 or 7 feet to our left. So we were all pretty close.”
Tammy Hart Fales: “As people came in, we got closer and closer to the door. Because people were moving forward, anxious to get in. Because it was festival seating, so of course you want to be there first, get in, get great seats.”
Steve Upson: “Right, we were hoping to be on the floor."
Tammy Hart Fales: “Be on the floor.”
Steve Upson: “Ten rows back.”
Tammy Hart Fales: “That was the goal.”
Steve Upson: “The goal.”
Tammy Hart Fales: “Didn’t make it there.”
Steve Upson: “It was tight enough that ... that if the crowd was moving, you had no choice but to move with them. There was no other way. It was that tight.”
Tammy Hart Fales: “And at times, your feet were off the ground. You’re in the crowd and you’re kind of moving.”
Tammy Hart Fales: “I don’t know when it got bad, but Steve and Doug, his friend from Purdue, kind of arm-locked."
Steve Upson: “We locked arms like so the girls were in between our arms, so the girls could get a decent breath. So, now we know it’s getting pretty … the doors hadn’t opened yet.”
Music Inside Started Push To Doors Outside
Concertgoers reported hearing a soundcheck while waiting for the gates to open. But Curbishley, The Who’s long-time manager, told WCPO there was no soundcheck or opening act that night. He said the music everyone heard before the show was a movie trailer for the film version of the band's rock opera, “Quadrophenia.”
Matt Wergers: “When the soundcheck started, people thought the show was starting. That's when it was like ... the only way I can describe it is if you watch a documentary on bees, one of the bees will say something’s going on and the crowd gets buzzed out and that’s what was going on. People started freaking out trying to get to the doors."
Wergers said he focused on keeping his girlfriend safe.
Matt Wergers: “I was trying to pick her up when she couldn’t breathe anymore, so she could get air because she was shorter than me. And I got over to the wall to the doors, and that’s when a big surge came and pushed us once, and then it pushed us another time, and then the third or fourth time, the pressure was so bad that we literally went through one of the plate glass windows because of the pressure of the bodies pushing us against the glass.”
Matt Wergers: “I literally seen people being pushed up in the air and walking on people into the door and a guy grabbing on the awning before the door and swinging himself into the building.”
At Death's Door
Mike Simkin: “At that point, I think everyone got really, really pumped up and really excited and that’s when you could just feel a surge in the crowd. And at that point I started to lose breath a little bit. It got to the point where I had just two things on my mind: to keep my feet on the ground and to keep air in my lungs.”
Mike Simkin: “At one point, I remember real clearly, a door broke … There was cops in front of each door. They were keeping them shut. I’m sure those guys were following orders. They were not opening the doors, not releasing this massive pressure that was going on outside."
Mike Simkin: “I’ve got to believe when that door broke, and all those people kind of pushed toward the side door, and a lot of people fell, I’ve got to believe that’s when our friends, and a lot of the 11, that’s where they probably never got up again.”
Mike Simkin: "All of the sudden they’re passing bodies over our heads from the front of this crowd, very limp, maybe passed out, maybe even worse. And that’s when I thought to myself, ‘This is really serious. This is not good.’ ”
'I Was Basically Fighting For My Life'
Mike Simkin: “The crowd went this way … toward the broken doors. And I was basically fighting for my life … There was an iron bar between the doors. I got to where I could grab one of those iron bars and I pulled myself to it … It was like a funnel with too many things trying to get through the funnel.”
Mike Simkin: “It was 20-22 degrees that night, and I was soaked from head to toe by the time I got in there.”
Mike Simkin: "One of the visions that I’ll never forget was there was, when I could get to the point where I could reach my head above the crowd a little bit, on my tippy toes to try to get some air, there was just this fog from people’s breath just hovering above this crowd.”
Mike Simkin: “I stood up and I looked at the doors and all the glass and hundreds and hundreds of faces pressed up the glass, another vision I’ll never forget. Just people trying to get in. Just humanity pressed up against the glass.”
Tammy Hart Fales: “So once we did hear the music, that’s when everyone started pushing forward and I actually went down on the ground, and Doug, who — thank God — was really tall, just picked me up.”
Steve Upson: “But as you’re going down, other people are going down too.”
Tammy Hart Fales: “Right.”
Steve Upson: “And people were yelling, ‘Back up!’ But people 10 people back didn’t know what was going on.”
Tammy Hart Fales: “They couldn’t hear it.”
Steve Upson: “And it was impossible to back up because it was that congested and tight."
Tammy Hart Fales: “I’m wanting to get up and how do I get up? And what do you? If you push down, you’re pushing down on someone to get up and you can’t. There’s no ground to step on. You’re stepping on an ankle and your foot is slipping. You’re not getting a solid stance. So, luckily, thank God, Doug was there … and just really grabbed me. Muscled me out.”
Steve Upson: “A group was down in front. Your vantage point, until you got pushed onto the pile, you couldn’t really tell what was going on. You would think you could get up, but there was no space to get up — except for standing on other people — and you’d get knocked back down again. So it got pretty chaotic, pretty scary at that moment.’
Watching The Show Go On
After the crowd rushed through the doors, Curbishley said a fire marshal told the band manager he was going to cancel the concert. But Curbishley argued that could create a huge panic if concertgoers — many of whom didn’t fully realize what had happened — were to leave through the death and pandemonium on the plaza. Another fire marshal agreed, and the show went on.
Matt Wergers: “The show is pretty much a blur. I couldn’t tell you one song they played that night .... I don’t know why we didn’t get up and leave.”
Steve Upson: “I couldn’t remember any songs they played. It was a blur.”
Tammy Hart Fales: “We just sat there.”
Steve Upson: “We didn’t clap. We didn’t get up."
Tammy Hart Fales: “Nope. We just kind of sat there.”
Matt Wergers: “Leaving the building was the most traumatic thing ever because when I got outside with the police cars and ambulances, a mountain of clothing, shoes, whatever that people got ripped off their bodies basically.”
Mike Simkin: “Eventually we all gathered except for Steve .... We waited there for what seemed like an hour … We figured he went home with somebody else. The last thing in the world we were thinking is what happened.”
Mike Simkin: “Got in our car and got on the highway and turned on WEBN, and the first thing we heard was, ‘If you’re coming home from The Who concert, please stop and call your parents because we’ve counted, I guess, seven people up to that point had gotten killed.' ”
Mike Simkin: “We went back to the Coliseum, must have been about 2 o’clock-ish, and just walked around calling out for Steve.
A friend’s sister went to General Hospital, now UC Medical Center, and identified Preston’s body. Simkin said he went to Preston’s house and sat in his room.
Mike Simkin: “He was just a guy who was just filled with joy and that spread to everybody that he was around.”
Mike Simkin: “Everybody called him 'Pipps.' Pipps was a nickname that was given to him pretty early because of his appearance. He was very slight in appearance. Smallish with long, sort of straw-colored hair, bright eyes. Some freckles. And somebody in our group started calling him Pippi Longstocking, which shortened up to Pipps.”
Matt Wergers: “That was one of the most traumatic times of my life, you know, waking up and hearing your mom say your friend is dead.”
A Family Grieves
Anne Votaw, Stephan Preston's mother: “Stephan was a clown. He was an actor always. He had funny little quips ... He had a magnetism about him that drew people to him … I think he would have gone into the arts. But he loved music ever since he was 3 years old or 4 years old.”
David Votaw, Stephan Preston's stepfather: “Stephan liked to party, so that sort of fed into it all. It did make the house kind of Finneytown High Central … We were the sort of parents who had an open-door policy. We didn’t object. Better to keep them close to home than who knows where.”
Anne Votaw: “I think events like that can either divide a family or can pull them together in some ways. And we all pulled together.”
David Votaw: “There was no reason to suspect that this is dangerous. You know, your children are supposed to be safe at those events, and that’s just what we were talking about. Why did this have to happen?”
Anne Votaw: “None of us have gotten over it. There will never be an accommodation for getting over it. That just doesn’t happen."
David Votaw: “Inevitably, the kids on the ground got walked on, but as I said, I’m confident they were not alive at the time — that they were already gone … It’s the mental image of that moment. It’s hard just imagining him being there."
Anne Votaw: “Don’t imagine.”
David Votaw: “It changed us enormously."
Anne Votaw: “I couldn’t wait to move out of that house because every time I looked out the window, I could see Stephan’s friends still out there because they lived down the street or in the neighborhood. And I just … it was very difficult.”
David Votaw: “We do often say, when we are having an experience of any kind, ‘What would it be like to have Steve here?’ or ‘What would he be doing now?’ ”
Anne Votaw: “Every December 3. It’s very difficult. Very difficult.”
David Votaw: “He liked carrot cake, so we usually get one.”
Anne Votaw: “We get a poinsettia, so we can have Christmas with him. It’s difficult.”
A Teen's Life — And Christmas — Gone Forever
Scott Kirby, Karen Morrison’s cousin: “Karen was such a fantastic person. Lit up a room. Very friendly. Very vivacious. Always laughing. A little bit shy sometimes. Beautiful. She was the light of her family.”
Scott Kirby: “Christmas was coming. They decided not to have Christmas, and never did again.”
Scott Kirby: “The Who concert was her first concert. She was a little over a month shy of being 16. I remember the stories after the tragedy of my aunt and my uncle being a little bit leery of allowing her to go to the concert. It’s a big concert. It’s her first concert, but she was going with friends, one of her friends being Jackie.”
Scott Kirby: “It was just devastating, absolutely devastating. And the devastation didn’t stop there. It didn’t stop with the sudden knowledge that their daughter was dead. My uncle, who’s 91 years old, still grieves.”
Loss Also Touched Wyoming Community
Andy Bowes, Peter Bowes’ brother: “He played the guitar. I play guitar. We were rockers. I still am. At that point in time he was thinking about where he was going to go to school. And I was his older brother. I kind of showed him the ropes a bit.”
Andy Bowes: “He was a popular kid. He was a smart kid. He did very well in school. I’m not sure what he would have been. I really have no clue. I think whatever he would have been, he would have done well at.”
Andy Bowes: “They say the brightest stars burn out the fastest. And that’s kind of the way I look at him.”
Who Or What Was To Blame?
Mike Simkin: “I was mad about everything, the Coliseum, the band because they were part of it ... mad, you know? Everything surrounding those circumstances, I was upset with. As time went on, I can tell you it wasn’t the band’s fault. And I can tell you that we never blamed the band. We never blamed the band.”
David Votaw, Stephan Preston's stepfather: “All they needed was more ticket takers. The Coliseum is ringed by doors. I don’t now how many they have. I’ve only been in that building a couple of times, but it must have been dozens. All they needed to do was station people at each of those doors. Then there wouldn’t have been one big line.”
Tammy Hart Fales: “You had the doors that opened and then you had maybe 4 or 5 feet and then you had the turnstiles, where the ticket takers were, so it was like a slowdown, and you could even see them pushing inside the door.”
Matt Wergers: “I’m not going to blame festival seating. I won’t do it. I’m a believer in it. That’s all I can really say about that.”
Annie Hagerman, Jackie Eckerle’s sister: “I think what was hard is it was such a freak accident. It was hard to understand that you could be waiting in line for a concert and die … I think it was a perfect storm of bad decisions that night … I never did think it was The Who’s fault.”
Andy Bowes, Peter Bowes' brother: “It wasn’t the first general admission concert seating in history. They had plenty of successful ones before this. This just, everything that could have gone wrong, it was Murphy’s Law.”
Mike Simkin: “With assigned seating, you know, it may be difficult for people to get good seats all the time, but I can tell you it’s safer. I can tell you what the most important thing is and that’s that your kid’s going to come home that night.”
Survivors Say They Were Robbed Of Their Youth
Matt Wergers: “It was a very traumatic time in my life. I don’t think the people of Cincinnati know the depth of us kids that were there. I was 18 years old and seeing what we saw, I know our parents and (their) parents were in wars and stuff, that’s the only way I can probably describe what I saw there is something so horrific that was instilled in my mind for the rest of my life."
Mike Simkin: “The physical pain over 40 years has faded. However, there is a part of me that has never really completely assimilated, completely understood what had happened that night at 18 years old. I’m with my friend. I’m looking at him face-to-face before we get in that line, laughing, you know, seeing those bright eyes and that smile looking at me, and that was the last time I ever saw him.”
How Finneytown Remembered Young Lives Lost
Mike Simkin: “That night, especially losing three dear ones, it sent a shock wave through this town and through our people that’s indescribable and everlasting.”
Steve Upson: "It took the security and safety of Finneytown ... that anything could happen ... that you could die. It made it too real."
Tammy Hart Fales: "I was a little shocked and questioning how could it be that many from our school ... What do you say to people at school? How do you react? I'm 17 years old. I didn’t know how to act or react."
Matt Wergers: “Most of our friends, we don’t even talk about it anymore unless it’s at our function that we do every year. Then some people bring up something, but it’s very hush hush. Nobody really wants to talk about it. That’s why I’m glad that you’re kind of opening this up for us a little bit.”
It took 30 years, but several Finneytown grads created a living memorial in honor of Preston, Eckerle and Morrison. The annual P.E.M. Memorial Scholarship goes to three Finneytown graduates who demonstrate the same passion for music and art that Preston, Eckerle and Morrison shared.
Scott Kirby, Karen Morrison’s cousin: “They’ve turned this tremendous tragedy, this horrific event, this life-altering thing into something that they can feel good about. I can speak for my family and a few of the other family members that I’ve met that it helps us a great deal as well.”
The scholarship idea took fruit after Wergers, Simkin and other grads placed a memorial bench in front of the Performing Arts Center at the school. Under the direction of alum Fred Wittenbaum, a beautiful brick plaza was created around the bench, and plaques of the three former students now adorn the brick wall.
In 2018, Daltrey made a private visit to the school to pay his respects.
Every first Saturday in December, The P.E.M. Memorial Committee celebrates the Lives of their Three Friends with a performance by the Finneytown Alumni Band and local musicians to raise funds for the three scholarships. The next event is Dec. 7.
Remembering The Other Victims
WCPO attempted to contact relatives of other victims but was unable to contact them or never heard back. The other victims were:
- Walter Adams, Jr., 22, Trotwood, Ohio
- Connie Sue Burns, 21, Miamisburg, Ohio
- David Heck, 19, Highland Heights, Kentucky
- Teva Rae Ladd, 27, Newtown, Ohio
- Philip Snyder, 20, Franklin, Ohio
- Bryan Wagner, 17, Fort Thomas, Kentucky
- James Warmouth, 21, Franklin, Ohio
Statements from the arena and concert promoter
Sean Lynn, Heritage Bank Center (Nov. 26, 2019): “The tragedy of December 3rd, 1979 is forever on our minds and hearts and the Southwest plaza will always be linked to the eleven concertgoers who lost their lives. We will never forget those victims and the many other Tri-State residents impacted by the events of that evening. We continue to be committed to the changes and ordinances that took effect worldwide as a result of this event and the safety and security of our patrons will always take priority.”
Larry Magid, Electric Factory Concerts (Dec, 5, 1979): “I know that my company, Electric Factory Concerts, and I firmly believe that the coliseum staff and the city police that were on duty at the time did all that they could to control a basically uncontrollable situation. We were faced with unexpected and unexplained circumstances that could not be controlled .. and instead of concentrating on putting the blame on any one particular party or set of parties at this point, our concentration will be to work with the task force that the mayor will appoint and to come up with the causes and work to prevent any future occurrences and to ensure the public safety and welfare at all future concerts.”
Pete Townshend Shares Regrets About Cincinnati tragedy
Pete Townshend seems to play the fool sometimes with his outspokenness, but not when he’s talking about The Who concert in Cincinnati 40 years ago.
The brutally frank rock star said he will take the memory of Dec. 3, 1979 and his sorrow for the victims and compassion for their families to his grave.
“This is something I will surely remember on my death bed,” Townshend said in an exclusive, face-to-face interview with WCPO. “At 74, people are starting to die faster in my life now … I’ve only maybe got 20, 30, 40 people that I remember who’ve passed in my life I really care about, but you know, the 11 of Cincinnati are part of that number.”
The legendary songwriter, guitarist, secondary lead singer and leader of The Who shared many deep feelings and revelations publicly for the first time with O’Rourke about the tragedy outside the Cincinnati concert – even casually mentioning that he and singer Roger Daltrey had never sat down and talked about it.
Forty years later, Townshend said he still carries deep regrets. Among his revelations:
- At 34, he was too drunk most of the time to quickly come to grips with what happened.
- Townshend said he believes The Who should not have gone on with the Cincinnati show after the 11 young people died in a crush of fans waiting outside on the plaza, even though the band didn’t know about it until the concert was over and they came off stage.
- And he feels even more strongly that The Who made a mistake by leaving town the next day and immediately continuing their tour.
“We ran away is what we did,” Townshend said. “I’m sorry, but that’s what happened. We ran away.”
Townshend said his and Daltrey’s separate, face-to-face interviews with WCPO were their first public conversations about the 1979 Cincinnati concert and the scars it left with them.
Townshend: “One of the reasons this scar has been tricky is because — wow, this is the first conversation that we’ve had about this ever! So maybe now the scar will heal a bit.”
WCPO: “Are you saying to me, this is the first in-depth conversation you’ve ever had about this?”
Townshend: “Yeah. Yeah. The first dedicated conversation about the accident.”
Not staying in Cincinnati is his major regret to this day, he said, even though Daltrey and Curbishley disagreed with him then and now.
“We handled it really badly. What we did is we left the city and we shouldn’t have … We had a show the next day in Buffalo. So, we spent the night (in Cincinnati). We couldn’t sleep. We got drunk. We sobered up. We got drunk again,” Townshend said.
“We didn’t know what to do. We didn’t have anyone come and talk to us. We really didn’t know what to say or think or feel. We should have done the dutiful follow-up of being present and available to speak and support the families."
Instead, they went straight to Buffalo and played there almost as if nothing had happened.
“We could have postponed Buffalo. We should have stayed (in Cincinnati) for at least three days,” Townshend said. “We should have stayed for a while and made it clear we were there and we were mourning and we were part of the process of trying to work out what had happened. And that we were able to have this conversation then.”
Speaking of his own demons, Townshend admitted his heavy drinking left him in no condition to help the band immediately decide how to respond properly.
“I think one of the things we were concerned about is it probably would have taken me two days to sober up, you know, because I was drinking flat out all the time,” Townshend said. “I really wanted to be on the ball and I don’t think I was capable.”
Townshend also said the Cincinnati tragedy led, in part, to his decision to leave the band.
“I think it manifested through me and, really quite quickly, despairing of The Who and eventually leaving them in 1981,” he said. “It was a couple of years after the accident. Just feeling … I was better off as a solo artist or writer. I went to work for eight years for a book publishing company. I just left the business.”
After breaking up in 1983, The Who occasionally came back together for tours and live appearances starting in 1989 and resumed regular touring in 1999.
Townshend called the Riverfront Coliseum a “crime scene” and said it “should have been investigated as such.”
Townshend blamed festival seating for creating anxiety among the ticketholders waiting to rush in to get close to the stage, and he also blamed the arena operators for keeping the doors locked until nearly concert time, then trying to funnel thousands of people though a handful of doors.
Townshend said he was shocked that lawyers and others tried to blame the band for the deaths.
The rock star admitted he was in a bad place when the band came to Cincinnati in 1979. Besides his heavy drinking, his marriage “was not in great shape.” And the death of drummer Keith Moon had taken a toll on him and the band, Townshend said.
But unless you were on the inside, you wouldn’t have known it from The Who’s incredible success. In fact, The Who’s manager told WCPO they were “at their peak.”
“I think I’m safe in saying they were probably the biggest rock and roll band in the world at that time,” Curbishley said.
And Townshend was one of the world’s biggest rock stars, having already written 14 Top 40 hits, including “l Can See for Miles,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again” and “Who Are You,” plus two rock operas, “Tommy” and “Quadrophenia.” The former contained three Top 40 singles, “Pinball Wizard,” “I’m Free” and “See Me, Feel Me."
Townshend’s commanding, guitar-smashing stage presence and his legendary hotel-room crashing helped him build a fan following worldwide, and his musical accomplishments would lead him — and the band — to induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.
Townshend’s use of the synthesizer was groundbreaking, as were his development of the rock opera and his feedback and power chord guitar technique. But it was Townshend’s songwriting that had a special connection with young people, his Tri-State fans said.
“You know, on that tour, I was in very bad shape. “ Townshend said. “I was drinking a lot and I could drink a lot and do my job. I’m not sure I did a good job or not. I haven’t gone back and investigated. But we were doing OK.
“We were in the second phase of The Who. Our drummer, Keith Moon, had died (from an overdose of medication for the treatment of his alcoholism). We had Kenney Jones from the Small Faces playing with us, who I adored, but Roger (Daltrey) didn’t like him — his playing — very much, so it got tense in the band.”
Townshend said The Who had a special interest in putting on a good show in Cincinnati that night.
“Cincinnati wasn’t a regular pit stop for the band, so it was great to be there,” he said. “It was a show we were really anxious to do and do well.”
When the show was over, they believed they had. But their satisfaction quickly turned to shock when they got the news.
“I remember feeling good about the show. And (we) came off stage and Bill Curbishley came in and said, ‘I’ve got some really bad news to tell you,’ and started to explain it to us,” Townshend said. “And I went through two phases. One was, of course, tremendous upset and concern. But the other was incredible anger that we had been performing while this was going on.”
Curbishley had gone out on the plaza and seen the death and destruction for himself — bodies of teens covered by blankets, others weeping and searching for friends, torn-off clothes and shoes gathered in piles.
Fire officials wanted to cancel the show, but Curbishley convinced them that would risk more loss of life and injuries.
“Bill decided we should continue to perform because he was concerned people would leave the building in a panic if we didn’t perform,” Townshend said. “So we performed without knowing what was going on outside. So it was very strange to have done that performance, which was very joyful and uplifting, not knowing what was going on outside. And then subsequently, in a sense, to be castigated for doing so. But it wasn’t our choice.”
Later, Townshend forced himself to look at photos of the carnage on the plaza.
“I couldn’t really castigate our manager for allowing the concert to go on if I hadn’t seen them because his argument was that, ‘Pete, you didn’t see what I saw,’ “ Townshend said. “He went out there and he saw it. And I had to see it myself to build up an argument to say, ‘OK, now I understand your decision.’
“I still don’t agree with it. I don’t think we should have performed until it had been sorted out. But the main thing, as I said earlier is, I don’t think we should have left.”
Townshend recalled the awkwardness he felt when the band went on stage in Buffalo the next night.
“We had an excuse because we had another gig, but I remember when Roger said, ‘This is for the kids of Cincinnati!’ and I just thought, ‘We’re in the wrong city. We’re in Buffalo,’ ” Townshend said.
“I know what he meant, but I just thought it was dumb. We shouldn’t have been performing at all. Not his fault, you know what I mean?
“I love Roger. That was his response. Mine was probably just to drink another bottle of brandy, so I’m not much better,” Townshend said.
“We should have stayed. We should have stayed.”
The Who’s decision to “run away” from Cincinnati the next day haunted Townshend so much that when a similar deadly incident happened 10 years later at a Pearl Jam concert, Townshend said he immediately called Eddie Vetter, Pearl Jam’s lead vocalist, to warn him not to make the same mistake.
“When the same thing happened to Pearl Jam in Denmark, a number of people (nine) were crushed in front of their stage, I got Eddie on the phone and I just said, ‘Stay there! Whatever is happening next, cancel it! Just stay there!’ ” Townshend said. “Not to leave, just to stay because then they could get the sense of what was right to do next.
“And they did. And I think it meant a lot,” Townshend said.
“It’s interesting that through that, other musicians, other bands have learned what to do.”
Townshend said he still wasn’t sober when he and Daltrey were summoned to Cincinnati to testify in hearings over lawsuits filed by the victims’ families.
“When we did the depositions … the night before I had to go to court to do them, I got completely smashed,” Townshend said. “I was so nervous, you know. In fact, the first question … the attorney said to me, ‘I hear you sat in the bar last night, Mr. Townshend, and got completely smashed.’
“And I said, ‘Yeah. I was terrified that you were going to accuse me of something I didn’t do.’ And I was in that chair for four hours!”
But Townshend said he wasn’t going to take the blame for what happened.
“When we did our depositions, the lawyers of the insurance companies, they were brutal,” Townshend said. “They pulled things out of my actions and the band’s actions — televisions out of hotel windows, the fact that we incited riots by breaking guitars and I would kind of go, ‘It was art. It was art.’ And my lawyer would kick me under the table (and say), ‘Shut up. Don’t say anything.’ ”
As much as the deaths disturbed him, Townshend said it was wrong for anyone to blame the band.
“For years and years I didn’t know what to say… I just wanted to shout out, ‘It’s not my fault!’ ” he said. “And I felt also, if I said ‘sorry’ or apologized, that would be misinterpreted — that I didn’t feel responsible. I don’t feel responsible. But of course, I’m terribly, terribly sorry for the families.”
Townshend mostly avoided the blame game during his interview but he did say this:
“There’s one thing that could have happened that could have prevented that incident is that the building had been properly run,” Townshend said. “On the other hand, I don’t want the person that ran the building to be made entirely responsible for this.”
He also criticized the use of festival seating, which was common at the time.
“That’s how we were performing at time and we stopped doing that straight away,” he said.
But that was only temporary.
Cincinnati City Council outlawed festival seating but reversed itself 25 years later for a 2009 Bruce Springsteen concert. Why? Promoters said many big acts preferred it and wouldn’t play Cincinnati if they didn’t.
The Pearl Jam tragedy happened in a mosh pit in front of the outdoor stage, and with big stadiums hosting many concerts these days, Townshend said he wishes more were done to ensure fan safety.
“Safety standards are still not quite right in my view,” he said.
Townshend said he hadn’t been dodging questions about the Cincinnati concert all these years.
“I haven’t been asked,” he said.
He said he willingly talked to WCPO at the request of the organizers of the P.E.M. Memorial Scholarship Fund at Finneytown High School. That group reached out to the band to help them honor the three Finneytown students who died outside the concert.
“I’m certainly not afraid to talk about it. In fact, I think this conversation only came about through the establishment of the foundation,” Townshend said. “It’s interesting, from something bad, something good happens, and then you can actually look at it again.”
“Did it change you?” WCPO asked Townshend.
“Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah,” he said. “And I’d like to say it changed me for the better, but I don’t think necessarily that it did.
“I’m still very traumatized by it. It’s a weird thing to have in your life. It’s a weird thing to have in your autobiography that, you know, 11 kids died at one of your concerts.
“It’s a strange, disturbing, heavy load to carry.”
Band Manager Bill Curbishley Was A Hero
It’s too bad we can’t name all the heroes of Dec. 3, 1979 — family members, friends, first responders or strangers who aided helpless others caught in the crush of humanity outside The Who concert.
Still, it’s worth noting some of the people who acted heroically to try to save lives on the Riverfront Coliseum plaza, where 11 concertgoers died.
Many people agreed that there could have been more deaths or injuries if the band’s manager, Bill Curbishley, had not insisted that the concert go on.
“A fire marshal came to me and told me they were thinking of stopping the show. And I said, ‘That’s crazy! You cannot and I’m not going to allow you to stop the show,' " Curbishley told WCPO. But he also admitted, “I don’t know how I would have stopped them."
"I said, ‘If you stop them, you’re going to have more problems on the arena floor. You could have more people hurt for sure, and if they came back through this area, the medical teams are never going to be able to cope with what they’re doing. And if keeping my band on stage saves even one life, to me, that’s what it’s about.’
“And then another fire marshal came out and said, ‘He’s right.’ And he concurred with me and he said, ‘We’ve got to be doing what we are doing now. We’ve got to clear this.’ So the band carried on on stage.”
Guy Ninio, just 22 and barely older than many of the concertgoers, was a paramedic hired to provide emergency care at rock concerts at the coliseum. He found himself alone in a nightmare after seven apparently lifeless bodies were carried into the first aid room within minutes. Ninio said the regular nurse on duty was in shock and incapacitated.
“I literally bust through her door, she’s curled up in the corner nearly in a fetal position … I count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 bodies, and I mean the bodies were just coming in at her psychologically faster than she could accept them. And I had no one to help me,” Ninio said.
“I had seven code blues all at once and I had to decide which patient to work on, and my only criteria was who was the warmest and the pinkest. That was it. I had no idea what was going on. I had no idea what had happened. All I knew was … I had to do what I had to do.”
Dale Menkhaus, then a Cincinnati police lieutenant, was head of a 25-member police detail assigned to provide security outside the coliseum. He said he saw the crowd swelling outside the closed doors after the time when they were supposed to be opened.
“There is a point where I went inside and asked the promoter and the facility management people to open all the doors. I said, ‘This crowd is way too big. We’ve never had this. We’re going to have a problem. We need to open every door.’
“And they said, ‘Well, we don’t have enough ticket takers. We don’t have enough ushers to really do that.’
“I said, ‘It doesn’t matter, just open the doors.’ That became a major, major bone of contention,” Menkhaus said.
Because the Coliseum was privately owned, police didn’t have legal authority to order the doors opened, Menkhaus said. City council changed that afterward, he said.
Menkhaus said three factors — “the festival seating, the size of the crowd that was there early and not enough doors opening” — were to blame for the tragedy. Besides 11 concertgoers killed, Menkhaus said 25 were transported to hospitals and 50 to 75 others were treated at the scene.
Forty years later, Curbishley, Ninio and Menkhaus shared their harrowing stories from that night in exclusive, face-to-face interviews with WCPO.
Curbishley said he wasn't aware of the problem on the plaza until the concert had already started.
“It was a normal day. We went to the venue. I met with Larry Magid, who was the usual promoter in Philadelphia and he was promoting the show with a local promoter. It was just another ordinary day.
“I can well remember them going on stage and they were maybe the second number in and Larry came to me and said there was a problem up on the plaza level, and he thought it was the result of bad drugs.
"And he said, 'It’s looking really serious.' So I said, ‘Let’s go.’
“So I went up to the plaza level with him and when I got there it was awful. It was horrific. I mean, there were shoes and clothing everywhere. And the medical teams were working on a lot of the injured... I could see for sure that there were a couple that had passed away."
That’s when Curbishley said he encountered the fire marshals.
“I stayed up there for quite a while. And when the band actually came off at the end of their set, I got them very quickly and said, ‘Look, go back. Only do two songs. We’ve got a real serious problem. I’ll explain afterward.’
“I think they sensed it was something, with my tone and demeanor, there was something serious. So they went on, played and came off. And I told them, at that time, I didn’t know there were actually 11 youngsters that died, but I did know there were deaths. And obviously it affected them greatly. It shook them a lot."
The incident shook Curbishley, too, and left him scarred by what he saw.
“I left a little bit of my soul in Cincinnati," he said. "It’s been very difficult to deal with. I’ve often thought, could we have done anything different? But in those days festival seating was very common. And, there hadn’t been a problem, really. I still don’t have adequate words to explain the feeling and the emotion I had there. To be surrounded by all of that and to see it and, you know, it’s difficult, very difficult."
He said talking about it has helped him. Curbishley has been working closely with the Finneytown High School grads who established a scholarship fund to honor the three Finneytown students who died on the plaza. Curbishley also helped arrange Roger Daltrey's private visit to Finneytown in 2018.
“I think that talking about it here and knowing that it’s going to go back to Finneytown, to Cincinnati as a whole, adds another layer for me to the healing process,” Curbishley said.
“If my actions on that night helped save at least one person, I’m hoping one day I might bump into that person without recognizing them and knowing it. Strange isn’t it?" he said.
“I’ve thought a lot about responsibility in life. And I don’t think we were responsible for anything that night that was bad. But I like to feel that I was responsible for possibly saving a few people, to be honest.”
Ninio said he was alone when he heard the call about trouble on the plaza.
“I broke out the exit door and it was chaos in the hallway and the first aid room was around the corner from the elevator bank and the stairway and, I mean, it was chaos. People were flying everywhere," Ninio said.
“After doing the initial triage, I picked this one kid. And I’ll never forget — red hair, freckled face. He’s the kid who keeps coming back to me (in my memory) and I initiated one-man CPR...
"I'm on the floor and John, a big old dude, walked into the room, and I just looked up and said, ‘John, just pick one and go.’ " Ninio said. "It seemed like forever until we had any fire department cover, anybody else come into that room."
It would be good to report there was a happy ending, but there wasn't.
“None of them made it. Nobody survived," Ninio said. “I wish I could have done more, but I couldn’t have possibly done more. I gave it my all. I gave everything I had.”
Ninio told a heartbreaking story about one victim who was dropped at a concession stand.
"Somebody thought or had the infinite wisdom to think he was just passed out. He was then lifted up by passersby and put on a concession stand and they were selling hot dogs and pizza over this guy, who was already expired," Ninio said.
"I mean, the insanity was just over the top.”
Menkhaus said he saw danger building on the plaza from earlier in the afternoon.
“We had never experienced a crowd gathering that early. Historically, festival seating drew people very early in the day because festival seating is first-come, first-served," he said.
“At 1:30 in the afternoon, people had started to gather for an 8 o’clock concert. We actually were asked to come earlier. By 3 o’clock there were probably 500 people waiting to get in. And that grew exponentially. By 5 o’clock, we estimate probably 2,000 people waiting to get in.
“That continued to grow. The doors were supposed to open at 6:30 p.m. And our estimate at 6:30 p.m. was 12,000 people were waiting to get in. That was unbelievable. We had never experienced that before.
“They had 18,345 tickets sold that night. And then it was a series of just horrible issues that all came into play that caused the problem," he said.
“When the doors didn’t open at 6:30, you could feel that very anxious, the whole crowd anticipation. At about 7 o’clock, you could hear music outside. Now people are really anxious, thinking they’re missing something.
“It was about 7:20, almost 40 minutes late, when the doors finally opened. There were two banks of doors. There were eight doors on each side. And they only opened three to four doors on each side. With 12,000 people.
“When the doors opened, I was behind the crowd, and you could see the crowd compressed by almost a third. It was unbelievable to see that many people just crush into each other," Menkhaus said.
“Once they got through the doors, they had to go to ticket takers. Ticket takers can only process about 40 people a minute. And they only had about eight. National standards at the time were one ticket taker per 1,000 people, so they should have had at least 18.
“That crush and — again, festival seating is first-come, first-served — it’s bedlam. People running, pushing, jumping, jumping over walls, barricades just to get in. And it was shortly after that door opening that we started getting information there were people down in the crowd, but the crowd was so compressed we couldn’t get in,” Menkhaus said.
“We finally forced our way to the front of the crowd. I was with four officers. We found the first young lady pushed up against the door, completely blue. We got inside, rushed to the first aid room and couldn’t get in. I pounded on the door and they finally opened the door and I realized that this was a major, major issue. They said, ‘There’s no room.’ There were literally bodies all over the floor. There was no more room.
“Nobody was prepared for what happened," Menkhaus said. "Eventually, we had every rescue unit, EMT, paramedic unit in the city at the coliseum."
Menkhaus, who since retired as an assistant chief, said he "fully agreed" with the decision to continue the concert.
“I think it would have been a disaster to try and shut it down," he said.
He said he still worries that festival seating could cause another concert tragedy. He said he tried to convince city council not to remove its ban in 2004.
"I wrote multiple letters, was retired from the Cincinnati Police Department at time, recounting the issues with festival seating at the time, and it was pretty much ignored," he said.
Menkhaus said he recalls that night every year at this time.
“The anniversary comes up and I’ve thought over the years that many of those that died would be married and have their own kids and be worried about their kids going to a concert," he said. "It’s really sad that happened.”
A one-hour WCPO documentary, "The Who: The Night That Changed Rock,” examines the night of this tragedy, and includes interviews with families and friends of the victims, Pete Townshend of The Who and band manager Bill Curbishley. A companion podcast will be available Dec. 4, as well an expanded documentary on the WCPO app on streaming devices.
This story was originally published on WCPO. You can see all of WCPO'S coverage of The Who: The Night That Changed Rock here.