For many, the panic, which broke out around 7:30 p.m., was a marker of the nation’s mind-set in an era when mass shootings appear to be happening everywhere and anywhere — at schools, churches, nightclubs and concerts.
Despite were no shots being fired, the potential felt raw and real.
Someone stepped on a plastic water bottle and many festival goers panicked. What most though was a gunshot turned out to be something benign, and the real danger was mass panic.
As fear spread through crowded Central Park on September 29, people stepped on scatter water bottles, causing even more popping sounds — and more panic.
Cardi B had just finished her set and walked offstage during the Global Citizen Festival when the first pop sliced the air. The unexpected noise sounded like a gun fire and fears were ignited. Behind the scenes, police commanders scrambled to discover what was going on and quickly decided shots had been fired. They rushed the stage to announce to the crowd.
“Stay calm,” Assistant Chief Kathleen O’Reilly shouted into a microphone. O’Reilly announced the sound had merely been a crowd-control fence toppling over. It was too late.
Panicked concert goers ducked before running for a limited number of exits. Some screamed, “Shooter!” and barriers were sent flying as people ran. Individuals fell and were trampled. Other literally ran out of their shoes while cops gave into the chaos and told people to duck and run.
While no one was seriously injured, the chaos joled law enforcement authorities, security experts and policy wonks. The mass panic forced an examination of the need for law enforcement to find new ways to curb the risk of crowd hysteria in an age when mass killings have raised the public fear of attacks.
The next day police commanders had said it was not a falling barrier, instead the trigger was a fight between two people on the stage. While concert goers scattered form the fight, they crushed empty water bottles under foot, and causing the loud popping noises.
When the false reports of a shooting spread, controlling the crowd was impossible.
“It was like putting toothpaste back in the tube,” said James Waters, the police counter terrorism commander.
The chaos happened almost a year to the day after a gunman killed 58 people during an outdoor concert in Las Vegas. The October 1, 2017 shooting remains the worst mass shooting in American history.
“People feel like they are in more danger than ever before,” said Arkady Bukh, an internationally known criminal defense lawyer.
Police officials are defending the handling of the panic in Central Park. The authorities told reports during a press conference there were 100 officers at the concert and those officers were able to restore order within minutes.
Behind the scenes it a different story. Officials are still struggling to figure out precisely what went horribly wrong and are diligently looking to adopt changes to make future events safer for attendees and participants during an emergency.
The planned changes include marking each entrance and exit with color-coded lights, install runway lighting to better indicate emergency routes and placing specialized teams of specially trained officers in positions where they can oversee the crowd.
“Situational awareness will be what we are talking about,” O’Reilly said. “People have to understand where they are.”
James P. O’Neill, New York City’s police commissioner, said the police could have moved quicker to calm the crowd. “I think our first hit on social media was around 12 minutes into the panic. We can do better there.”
O’Neill told reporters the department would “go back and look at what happened and see if we can prevent it in the future.”
“Part of the reason there was pandemonium,” said Bukh, “was the police were telling people to run and duck.”
Near 8:30 pm, the police department’s public information office sent, via Twitter, an image of people waiting for the last concert performances. By then though, most had left the park and concert goers did not return.
The show closed at 10:30 pm and police presence surged with scores of officers patrolling the entrances while paramedics still removed people on stretchers.
As concert goers said there were too many barriers and not enough signs. Other attendees said the organizers didn’t appear to have any formal procedure to evacuation.
“People just didn’t know where to go,” said Shannon Flynn, 40, of New York City.