NEW YORK – Forty years after a stampede left 11 people dead and 23 injured at a Who concert in Cincinnati, Pete Townshend says he’s always regretted not sticking around to deal with the aftermath.
Instead, the band left the Riverfront Coliseum on December 3, 1979, and moved on to Buffalo, New York, the next stop on their tour.
“I’m not forgiving us. We should have stayed,” Townshend told The Associated Press during a recent interview where he was promoting his debut novel, “The Age of Anxiety.”
The tragedy occurred as fans surrounded the arena hoping to claim a seat near the stage. Thousands had waited hours to get inside, ready to charge in for first-come seating.
The band didn’t find out about the calamity until the end of the show. Townshend recalls the band’s manager, Bill Curbishley, telling him: “I’ve got something terrible to tell you.”
Townshend then described the shock of seeing bodies sprawled on the ground as they left the stadium — “many of whom weren’t dead, by the way,” he said. “They didn’t know who was dead and who was just badly hurt, maybe 40 bodies under blankets.”
Townshend remembered the rage he felt toward Curbishley for not telling the band about the tragedy before the show, admitting that he “wanted to kill him.”
“You could at least give (us) a choice as to whether or not to go on,” Townshend said.
“But the choice none of us made, which was equally dim, was that we left the building. You know, we should have stayed.”
Curbishley declined comment when contacted by The Associated Press. However, in an interview with WCPO of Cincinnati, he said he fought with emergency officials and insisted the concert go on so there wouldn’t be more disruption, and believes it likely saved lives.
“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,'” he told WCPO. “And if keeping my band on stage saves even one life, to me, that’s what it’s about.'”
Lead singer Roger Daltrey visited a memorial site at a high school near Cincinnati in 2018, but the entire band has not been back. That will change: Townshend said they plan to return for the first time: An announcement is planned for later Tuesday.
Townshend says he can’t help thinking about those parents who lost their children,
“It isn’t all about rock ‘n’ roll. This is about kids from Cincinnati who died — kids from Cincinnati whose parents went through trauma; kids from Cincinnati who were disabled or hurt or damaged by what happened there,” Townshend said.
A similar tragedy occurred in 2000 at the Roskilde Music Festival in Denmark. After Pearl Jam took the stage, there was a stampede that killed nine people and injured 28.
Townshend says he called the band’s frontman Eddie Vedder and told him to stay there.
“Don’t leave. I don’t care whether you’ve got another festival tomorrow for a million euros. Stay there.’ And they stayed there for three days. And I think it really helped,” Townshend said.
Townshend feels that enough time has passed for meaningful discussion about the Cincinnati tragedy.
“How are we responsible? … Now, we can have a conversation about it when we go back. That conversation will pick up. We will meet people and we’ll be there. We’ll be there. That’s what’s important. I’m so glad that we’ve got this opportunity to go back,” he said.
“But I do think one of the things that happened at the time was that we ran away.”