Who concert paramedic describes deaths, despair

Posted at 8:07 PM, Dec 05, 2015
and last updated 2015-12-05 20:07:55-05

CINCINNATI – Thirty-six years later, Guy Ninio, the chief paramedic on duty at The Who concert, still has nightmares about stepping into a room where seven victims were spread on the floor and on tables with little chance of saving them.

"I did my quick triage to every single victim and recognized that every single one of them were in a code-blue situation," Ninio told WCPO Tuesday in his first media interview about that night. "My criteria at that point had to change to pretty much wartime criteria -- who's got the best chance of survival -- and my only criteria was which one's the pinkest and warmest and go for that one, which I did."

Kasey Ladd, only 2, didn't go to the concert at Riverfront Coliseum on Dec. 3 , 1979. But his mother did. She was one of the 11 concertgoers who never came home.

Ladd helped memorialize her and the other victims by working to get a memorial marker on the plaza outside the front doors of the building, since renamed US Bank Arena. He says he will have mixed feelings when the marker is unveiled on the anniversary Thursday night.

"Happy. Sad. I'm happy that they're getting recognized, but still sad because these 11 kids ain't here. They'll never come back," Ladd said.

PHOTO GALLERY: 2014 ceremony marking 35th anniversary of Who concert tragedy.

The Who Concert Tragedy is seared into the memory of many Tri-Staters – not just people who were there or lost loved ones, but everyone old enough to remember. The tragedy was triggered when thousands of fans with festival-seating tickets crowded in front of the locked doors, waiting to run for the best seats. Inside, The Who took the stage for a late sound check. Outside, fans could hear the music and, thinking the concert had started, pushed toward the doors.

When only two doors opened, the crowd pushed in that direction. Some people fell and were trampled. Others were caught in the crush standing up, even lifted out of their shoes. Survivors remembered not being able to move and struggling to breathe.

Ninio said he was inside the building on the ground floor when he got the word. With fans who made it inside rushing past him to claim their seats, Ninio said he struggled to get to the first aid room on the fourth floor.

"I was fighting through the people loaded with gear, as much as I could carry, because my partner and I had been separated at the bottom because he had the bulk of the gear with stretchers and certainly couldn't go up the stairs easily. So, I just grabbed all I could grab, headed up the stairs, and bust through the doors to find a sea of humanity just flying in every direction," Ninio said.

"As I made my way to the first aid room, I burst open the door to find the nurse in total shock -- unable to cope in any way, to be of help to anyone -- with seven victims laid out throughout this 10-by-10 room, two on tables and the rest spread across the floor."

He was on his own, he said.

"Back in those days, we had no cell phones. There was no way to communicate with anyone other than my own dispatch, and two-way radios were almost impossible to bust through the arena's concrete barriers, because once you're in that room, you are literally encapsulated by layers and layers of concrete and people and humanity."

Who can I save, he thought.

"I chose the pinkest one -- a young man with red hair, freckle face. I still see his face on a regular basis -- at night, at odd times. So, I guess you could describe that as my PTSD syndrome. That constantly reminds me of who he was," Ninio said. "Still don't know his name."

Ninio said minutes seemed like hours as he gave CPR to the young man with red hair and freckles. By then, the concert had started. No one had told the band what was going on outside. The Who didn't find out until the concert was over.

Ninio figured it was five to 10 minutes until his partner, seeming in shock, caught up with him in the first aid room.

"My partner, John Samson, who is now deceased, burst into the room with a look on his face that I'd never seen before, and John was a Vietnam War vet. He was a medic, corpsman, worked on the ships. He had had seen unspeakable Vietnam tragedies arrive into the ship.

"So, he was truly a seasoned warrior, and he walks into the room -- bursts into the room -- and we've got now, if you can just imagine, The Who, the loudest rock-and-roll group of all time, blaring through the Coliseum. You're standing next to someone and screaming at them to get them to understand what you're saying.

"The echoes, the sound, was just deafening."

Ninio said he told his partner to find the "next pinkest soul and go for it, and he began working on victim No. 2 out of seven."

There wasn't much they could do, Ninio said.

Afterward, he said, he and his local company, National Medic Service, Inc., were vilified in the media. It was hard to take.

"How could anyone have been prepared for that? No one could have been prepared for that. Not even in today's modern world of rolling operating room ambulances could anyone have been prepared for that," Ninio said, standing on the plaza. "We had every Cincinnati Fire Department ambulance here and present.

"The issue was, they were tending to the injured and the victims on their way into the Coliseum from the concourse. So, they were out here working their way in. What they didn't realize is that I had the majority of the victims before me and there was no way to communicate with them in that little room because I was busy, as was my partner. And again what seemed like forever -- probably another 30 to 40 minutes -- I did CPR to these folks. I finally get one of the fire department captains who walked into the room and relieved us both -- at which point we were exhausted physically."

Ninio said they were well-equipped to handle standard emergencies, but not so many.

"There's no way on earth, not even by today's standards, could anyone have been prepared for that type of calamity all at once. There's no chance that we were ill-equipped. As a matter of fact, we were very well equipped. We were one of the best private ambulances in Cincinnati," he said.

"I was put on rails out of town by the local media several months after the event with front-page headlines proclaiming that we were ill-equipped. Well, yeah, we were ill-equipped to handle 11 people all at once -- absolutely."

Ninio calls himself one of the "walking wounded" from that night.

"Walking wounded that made it through. Exhumed myself from that horrible night," he said.

He compared being one of the "walking wounded" to having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

"The city of Cincinnati conducted a study that basically showed that there was a minimum of 1,000 to 2,000 victims with a higher degree of alcoholism and drug abuse who had attended the show and are still suffering from PTSD-type symptoms," Ninio said. "PTSD was a term that was being applied to the homecoming Vietnam vets, but had not yet routinely been applied to our general public."

Ninio hopes the memorial marker on the plaza will bring some healing to the "walking wounded" and the victims' families. He thinks it will help him.

"I believe this is a turning corner for me. I'm hoping in some fashion that the victims' families respectfully find closure for themselves with this, for whatever the effort was to erect this monument. I think that the only thing missing here is that we are not qualifying the 'walking wounded' as victims. And, the victims who are still with us -- again, me being one of them -- need to find closure and need to find help because a lot of them are still out there," Ninio said.

Kasey's mom, Teva Ladd, 27, was the oldest of the 11 victims.

"The only memories I've got of my mom are what people said about what happened -- the articles and what people have told me," Ladd said.

His mom and dad liked going to concerts but didn't like festival seating, he said.

"My father said about the concerts my mom and him saw in the 70s -- Led Zeppelin, Elton John and all that -- he just talked about festival seating, it was just like being in a sardine can. They just fit anybody [in]. As much tickets as they could sell, they would do it."

He said one good thing that came out of the Who concert was Cincinnati's ban on festival seating. That lasted 25 years until city council lifted it in 2014. Even then, council made a law forcing concert promoters to apply to the fire chief for a permit. The city also requires 7 square feet of space per person.

"Now, they've got to have certain square footage per ticket sold, which will limit promoters just selling as many tickets as they possibly can to the venue," Ladd said.

Growing up without his mom was hard, he said, but he was able to make something good out of it.

"Of course, it bothers me, but I got to live with it. There's really no other way. I can either let it eat up inside, or I can do like with this memorial and turn a negative into a positive," Ladd said.

Creating the memorial marker took a six-year effort, plus friends in high places.

"Bootsy Collins, Patty (Collins) and I were talking, and I was explaining how I was involved in all this," Ladd said. "They got behind me and introduced me to Elliott Ruther from the Cincinnati Music Heritage Foundation, and then when we had the 30th anniversary, other people that this has impacted greatly just kind of got involved and we just took off, and now we're here with the memorial marker."

It obviously has special meaning to Ladd.

"It means the world, really," he said. "A sense of closure. A sense of recognition of the lives lost and the goodness that progressed from this tragedy."

The marker has been placed on the plaza, but it's under wraps until the unveiling at 7 p.m. Thursday, so Ladd described it for WCPO.

"One side is in remembrance of the 11 victims, which has their names, and on the other side are details about what happened that night and what came from the tragedy, such as regulations on concerts and what venue and promoters can and can't do in regards to attendance," he said.

"I think it's fabulous."

Anonymous donors gave $5,000 for the marker. Ladd hopes something more permanent might be created in the future.

"I would actually like to see a more permanent memorial down there on the riverfront, but we'll see where that goes," Ladd said. "Then again, I never thought there would be a memorial marker up there, either."

The 11 people killed at The Who concert were:

> Walter Adams, Jr., 22

> Peter Bowes, 18

> Connie Burns, 18

> Jacqueline Eckerle, 15

> David Heck, 19

> Teva Ladd, 27

> Karen Morrison, 15

> Stephen Preston, 19

> Phillip Snyder, 20

> Bryan Wagner, 17

> James Warmoth, 21