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WCPO to air documentary marking 40 years since tragedy that killed 11 before The Who concert

Posted at 5:00 AM, Nov 21, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-01 16:38:41-05

CINCINNATI — On the last night of what might be the final U.S. tour for British rock legends The Who, bandleader Pete Townshend marked a first with WCPO anchor Tanya O’Rourke: He sat for his first extended on-camera interview about what the band calls "The Cincinnati tragedy."

"You know, I'm still traumatized by it," he said.

Townshend’s bandmate, lead vocalist Roger Daltrey, and the band’s long-time manager, Bill Curbishley, also shared exclusive personal accounts with O'Rourke of what happened Dec. 3, 1979, when a frantic crowd crushed 11 young people to death outside a Who concert at Riverfront Coliseum. All of the victims died of asphyxiation.

The oldest victim that night was 27. The youngest was 15.

In WCPO’s documentary "The Who: The Night that Changed Rock,” Townshend, Daltrey, and Curbishley talk for the first time ever about how the event permanently changed rock music and the lives of many.

"It's a weird thing to have in your autobiography that, you know, 11 kids died at one of your concerts,” Townshend said. “It's a strange, disturbing, heavy load to carry.”

Pete Townshend of The Who sits for exclusive interview with WCPO Anchor Tanya O'Rourke.

WCPO traveled to Seattle to speak with members of The Who and spent months interviewing local survivors of that night. Each conversation provides new, chilling accounts of the crowd crush responsible for the deaths.

Mike Simkin survived the crowd crush

Family members of some victims also share emotional, intimate details of their loved ones’ short lives to mark 40 years since the event.

Jackie Eckerle's sisters remember her

The band members and Finneytown residents also reveal a special relationship between The Who and the Cincinnati high school where three of the victims were students. The documentary shares how that relationship has turned a horrible night into something positive, celebrating the futures of some current Finneytown High School Students who will major in the arts or music in college, while remembering the students whose futures were cut short on Dec. 3, 1979.

PEM Memorial at Finneytown High School

Anchor Tanya O’Rourke, who grew up in Finneytown, created the documentary to tell the stories of those who died 40 years ago, those who survived and examine how it changed this small community. Along the way, she and her WCPO team discovered the long-term effect the tragedy had on concerts across the country, as well as on The Who, the victims’ families and survivors in the audience.

Until now, Daltrey and Townshend have never shared the most personal details of their story of what happened in Cincinnati. At first, they didn’t even know it had happened. The crowd crush happened on the plaza outside; inside the arena, with walls between them and the paramedics and the sobbing survivors, the band played an entire concert before learning anyone had been hurt.

"That dreadful night of the third of December became one of the worst dreams I've had in my life," Daltrey said.

Curbishley, who witnessed the deaths and made the call to let the band play, has never publicly shared the anguish he felt afterward.

"Despite everything, I still feel inadequate,” he said. “I don't know about the guys, but for me, I left a little bit of my soul in Cincinnati."

Daltrey, Townshend and Curbishley give honest and raw accounts in this, their first long-form television interview about that night, and the painful days and years that followed.

This 60-minute documentary will air at 8 p.m. on the 40th anniversary of the tragedy, Dec. 3.

A companion podcast will be available Dec. 4, as well an expanded documentary on all streaming devices.

Multiple in-depth stories can also be found here on starting Dec. 1.