A History of Human Stampedes


Adam Humphreys directed me to the Wikipedia entry for “stampede” the other day. I read about crazy things there—stampedes that caused the suffocation of over 4,000 people, weird instances of mass hysteria, a link between consumerism and human herd-like behavior. This article explains and catalogs, to a somewhat limited extent, human stampeding and mass hysteria. Overall, the phenomena mostly seem bleak, as these behaviors allow us to witness, generally, people losing control of their minds.

Wikipedia defines a stampede as “an act of mass impulse among herd animals or a crowd of people in which the herd (or crowd) collectively begins running with no clear direction or purpose.” It further lists animals likely to stampede: humans, cattle, elephants, Blue Wildebeests, wild horses and rhinoceros.

The causes for non-human stampedes seem mostly funny. Anything even somewhat unusual can start a cattle stampede—the strike of a match at night, a horse shaking itself, even a tumbleweed blown into the herd. Unfortunately, idiot stampeding animals can literally self-destruct. They’ve been known to stampede off cliffs and into rivers, where they die immediately.

The causes of human stampedes seem less stupid. Mass panic, “the manifestation of the same or similar hysterical symptoms by more than one person,” according to Wikipedia, is one of the primary causes of human stampedes. Moreover, panic seldom occurs “unless the public lack information, are confined, threatened or confused,” reported an article published by the Guardian in 2003.

Mass panic (or mass hysteria) is weird. One person in a crowd becomes sick or hysterical. Other people see it and can’t help but doing the same thing. It spreads from individual to individual, and can last a few minutes to a few months.

Oddly, mass hysteria is spread by line of sight, like some weird M. Night Shyamalan virus. People in a mass-panic situation don’t make sense—they run away, but without direction or intent. The focus of mass hysteria can be absurd—there have been a number of reported cases of “penis panic,” or Koro, a mass hysteria among the males of a population that their genitals are shrinking or even disappearing entirely.

Mass panic can additionally be triggered by very obvious, more reasonable circumstances such as explosions, fires and metaphorical or literal yells of “Fire!” It is in these situations that mass panic has often caused human stampedes. Here’s a disturbing video of a stampede in Amsterdam, in which we actually hear a dude yell “Bomb!” (or something) and witness the ensuing aftermath:


Another, more historical example: the Italian Hall disaster of 1913. On Christmas Eve in Calumet, Michigan, over 500 striking miners of the C&H mining company gathered for a Christmas party on the second floor of the city’s Italian Hall. The only way to get to the second floor was by a steep staircase, save a poorly marked fire exit that was only accessible by window. Someone in the crowded hall, either as a joke or an intentional act of disruption, yelled “Fire!” 73 people died in the resulting stampede for the doors. 59 of them were kids.

The most extreme instance of human stampeding in recorded history happened in China during WWII. In June, 1941, the Japanese began bombing the city of Chongging, China. This triggered a mass panic inside an air raid shelter filled with Chinese people. 4,000 people died by suffocation.

Human stampedes can also occur as the result of a situation where corporate marketing produces anxiety and competition among a crowd it’s intentionally gathered.

There have been numerous examples of this type of situation. On Black Friday in 2008, in front of a Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, New York, a store employee got trampled and four people were injured as a crowd of frenzied shoppers, anxious for the store to open after camping out all night, literally broke the door down in an effort to get to the deals first.

In November 2007, 3 people were killed and 30 injured in a Chinese supermarket that was offering a 20% discount on cooking oil.

Here’s a video of similar idiots in action, in which we also get to view a woman and her child getting trampled in slow motion:


Interestingly, death by stampede doesn’t normally occur by trampling. It’s typically caused by compressive asphyxiation, which occurs from both horizontal pressure and vertical “stacking.” Wikipedia defines the term as such: “the mechanical limitation of the expansion of the lungs by compressing the torso, hence interfering with breathing.” Basically, it’s suffocation.