CINCINNATI — Watch WCPO's documentary, "The Who: The Night That Changed Rock," in the video player above. Find other stories here.
The crush of an anxious crowd pressed Matt Wergers and his girlfriend through a glass door on the Riverfront Coliseum plaza. Then, Wergers remembers, the duo ran through the turnstiles into the arena, where they thought British rock legends The Who had started playing.
“I hate to say this today - sorry, police officer - I slammed a cop to get us out of the way and we went running into the show,” said Wergers, who was one of several friends from Finneytown High School gathered at the coliseum for the highly anticipated concert.
The 18-year old Wergers had just survived a life-or-death drama on the plaza. But he didn’t foresee what he would encounter next.
“Got her seated,” Wergers said, “and I came back down looking for the rest of the group and that’s when I found one of our friends, Cindy Meade, lying on the floor with no shoes, her purse gone, her coat gone, crying on the floor with a pile of other people’s belongings laying everywhere. And multiple people running through that same glass window.”
They were among the lucky ones that night.
Forty years later, four Finneytown schoolmates who survived the tragedy outside The Who concert on Dec. 3, 1979, along with family members of four of the 11 victims – three from Finneytown -- recently shared their stories with WCPO Anchor Tanya O’Rourke to mark the anniversary.
O’Rourke also got exclusive, face-to-face interviews with rock legends Peter Townshend and Roger Daltrey of The Who, and the band’s manager, Bill Curbishley.
Their remembrances will be included in a one-hour WCPO documentary, "The Who: The Night That Changed Rock,” airing at 8 p.m. Tuesday on WCPO Channel 9 and streamed on WCPO.com. A companion podcast will be available Dec. 4, as well an expanded documentary on the WCPO app on streaming devices.
Tammy Hart Fales and Steve Upson also attended Finneytown High and were at the concert that night. Hart Fales said she fell in the suffocatingly-tight crowd and feared she would be trampled. She had already seen the blue face of a helpless teen in a pile of people on the ground.
But Hart Fales was with another Finneytown friend, Stephan Preston, who had brought his tall and muscular college roommate, whom Hart Fales and Upson remember as Doug. She said Doug pulled her up and led her and Upson out of danger.
“We were getting pushed, so we had to put our feet out and step on people to keep from going on the pile, too,” Upson said. “So it was that crazy and the only thing was to exit. If we would have stayed any longer, we would have been ...”
Tammy Hart Fales: “Hurt.”
Steve Upson: “We would have been 13 or 14 or whatever the number.”
That night, 11 young people from the Cincinnati area were crushed by the crowd outside the coliseum and died of asphyxiation.
The 19-year-old Preston, who was short and had a slight build, had locked arms with his roommate, Hart Fales said. But Preston still got separated in the crowd movement. Later, Preston’s mother, watching the TV coverage at home, recognized something and realized her worst fear.
“I saw them carrying a kid out of the front and I said, ‘Those are Stephan’s shoes,’” Anne Votaw told O’Rourke. “And, um, when my husband got home, I told him and he said, ‘No, No. You’re just jumping to conclusions.’ And that whole night, I didn’t sleep at all, of course, because he didn’t come home.”
One of Jackie Eckerle’s three older sisters, Annie Hagerman, had gone to her family’s house to wait for Jackie to come home when she saw a police cruiser driving slowly by. Hagerman waved it down.
“I said, ‘Are you looking for an address?’ And they said yes, and it was ours,” she said. “They took me down to the morgue. I identified her and then I had to call home and then they brought me home.”
Eckerle and her friend Karen Morrison, both 15-year-old Finneytown sophomores, had gone to the concert together. It was to be Morrison’s first concert. They were standing with Preston and the others before the crowd pulled Eckerle and Morrison away, Hart Fales said.
Preston’s mother said she thinks her son saw Eckerle in trouble and tried to save her.
“I think Jackie went down in front of him. And he went down to help her up and never made it up,” Votaw said. “The two of them died right together. One on top of the other.”
“Everyone was just squeezed to death,” Preston’s stepfather, David Votaw, said. “I suspect they were all gone before the doors were opened.”
“I would never have imagined people getting killed just getting into a concert,” Upson said. “Festival seating got a lot of the blame, but to me, it was more they didn’t open enough doors.”
This story tells what happened on that horrific night in their own words – what Wergers, Hart Fales, Upson and a fourth Finneytown survivor, Mike Simkin, saw and felt. Also included are their painful memories and those of family members of their three young friends – Preston, Eckerle and Morrison – and 18-year-old Peter Bowes of Wyoming, who didn’t come home.
Why Everybody Was Hot To See The Who
Mike Simkin: “The Who spoke directly to us. Their music. Their lyrics. The energy in their music. And it just didn't get any bigger than The Who.”
Matt Wergers: “They were one of the biggest bands that everybody wanted to see. And when The Who was on the radio, you cranked your radio up and you drove around Finneytown. And you wanted everyone to know that you were listening to The Who. It was a big thing.”
Steve Upson: “It was just one of the go-to bands, like the Rolling Stones and The Who. You just put it in your repertoire of being there.”
Tammy Hart Fales: “The Who, the beat, the words, just kind of got to me. And I still listen to The Who. I go to their concerts when I can. It’s just been with me for forever. It’s the words. It’s what they’re saying, It’s what they are talking about.”
Mike Simkin: “They’re coming to Cincinnati, and the second we heard about it, we were just beyond excited.”
Matt Wergers: “Back in those days we’d camp. We got there at noon on show day to get ready to go for the concert that was later on that evening.”
Mike Simkin: “And once we had those tickets, it was like gold. I felt like putting it in a safety deposit box. It was really … the anticipation was amazing.”
Tickets sold out weeks in advance for $10 apiece. The arena held more than 18,000 people. Lines formed outside hours before the show was slated to start at 8 p.m.
Concert Day And The Excitement Peaks
Anne Votaw, Stephan Preston’s mother: “Stephan was in the middle of braces. He had an orthodontic appointment the morning of The Who.
“I said, ‘I want you to attend your appointment tomorrow morning.’
“And he said, ‘I’m not going.’
“And I said, ‘What do you mean you’re not going?'
“And he said, ‘Because I want to be first for the festival seating at The Who concert.’
“And that was the last time I talked to him. He was [adamant] about going. He wanted to be first in line. He wanted to be first in line by the door.”
Eckerle was the youngest of four girls in her family. Her older sisters remember how excited she was to be going to see The Who with Morrison.
Karen Eckerle, Jackie Eckerle’s sister: “For months. Every day. ‘I can’t wait till The Who concert.' And we were like, ‘Ohhhhh.’ Jackie and Karen came to the school nurse’s office that day. They couldn’t concentrate in their classes because they were so excited and she just told them to lay down and relax. She said they were so cute. And that was the last time she saw them.”
Mike Simkin: “There were five of us who went down together. And we always parked in the same spot when we went down for concerts, which was under one of the bridges before they redid Sawyer Point.”
Matt Wergers: “It was a free-for-all is basically what it was … There was a lot of people juiced up, ready to go see this show.”
Mike Simkin: “There were people who were starting to push from the back a little bit. I remember there was a group of kids who thought it was a joke to just run and jump up into the crowd.”
Mike Simkin: “There was just a lot of energy going on, and in the meantime you had no pressure valve to open. You had the doors remain shut, but still it was a crowd that we were kind of familiar with.”
Mike Simkin: “The crowd got bigger, more boisterous. Next thing you know, you’re kind of fighting to keep your feet on the ground a little bit, you’re moving involuntarily a little bit.”
Trouble Brewing On The Plaza
Steve Upson: “Saw the crowd was getting bigger. It was probably 6 o’clock when we got down there. Two hours before the show. Eventually went over and got in line, basically.”
Tammy Hart Fales: “I don’t think it was quite a line. It was people mashed … because, at the time, you didn’t know which doors were going to open.”
Tammy Hart Fales: “Jackie and Karen and Steve, I remember seeing them. They were probably 6 or 7 feet to our left. So we were all pretty close.”
Tammy Hart Fales: “As people came in, we got closer and closer to the door. Because people were moving forward, anxious to get in. Because it was festival seating, so of course you want to be there first, get in, get great seats.”
Steve Upson: “Right, we were hoping to be on the floor."
Tammy Hart Fales: “Be on the floor.”
Steve Upson: “Ten rows back.”
Tammy Hart Fales: “That was the goal.”
Steve Upson: “The goal.”
Tammy Hart Fales: “Didn’t make it there.”
Steve Upson: “It was tight enough that (sways here) that if the crowd was moving, you had no choice but to move with them. There was no other way. It was that tight.”
Tammy Hart Fales: “And at times, your feet were off the ground. You’re in the crowd and you’re kind of moving.”
Tammy Hart Fales: “I don’t know when it got bad, but Steve and Doug, his friend from Purdue, kind of arm-locked."
Steve Upson: “We locked arms like that (demonstrates) so the girls were in between our arms, so the girls could get a decent breath. So, now we know it’s getting pretty … the doors hadn’t opened yet.”
Music Inside Started Push To Doors Outside
Concertgoers reported hearing a soundcheck while waiting for the gates to open. But Curbishley, The Who’s long-time manager, told WCPO there was no soundcheck or opening act that night. He said the music everyone heard before the show was a movie trailer for the film version of the band's rock opera, “Quadrophenia.”
Matt Wergers: “When the soundcheck started, people thought the show was starting. That's when it was like ... the only way I can describe it is if you watch a documentary on bees, one of the bees will say something’s going on and the crowd gets buzzed out and that’s what was going on. People started freaking out trying to get to the doors."
Wergers said he focused on keeping his girlfriend safe.
Matt Wergers: “I was trying to pick her up when she couldn’t breathe anymore, so she could get air, because she was shorter than me. And I got over to the wall to the doors, and that’s when a big surge came and pushed us once, and then it pushed us another time, and then the third or fourth time. The pressure was so bad that we literally went through one of the plate glass windows because of the pressure of the bodies pushing us against the glass.”
Matt Wergers: “I literally seen people being pushed up in the air and walking on people into the door and a guy grabbing on the awning before the door and swinging himself into the building.”
At Death's Door
Mike Simkin: “At that point, I think everyone got really, really pumped up and really excited and that’s when you could just feel a surge in the crowd. And at that point I started to lose breath a little bit. It got to the point where I had just two things on my mind: to keep my feet on the ground and to keep air in my lungs.”
Mike Simkin: “At one point, I remember real clearly, a door broke … There was cops in front of each door. They were keeping them shut. I’m sure those guys were following orders. They were not opening the doors, not releasing this massive pressure that was going on outside."
Mike Simkin: “I’ve got to believe when that door broke, and all those people kind of pushed toward the side door, and a lot of people fell, I’ve got to believe that’s when our friends, and a lot of the 11, that’s where they probably never got up again.”
Mike Simkin: "All of the sudden they’re passing bodies over our heads from the front of this crowd, very limp, maybe passed out, maybe even worse. And that’s when I thought to myself, ‘This is really serious. This is not good.’”
'I Was Basically Fighting For My Life'
Mike Simkin: “The crowd went this way … toward the broken doors. And I was basically fighting for my life … There was an iron bar between the doors. I got to where I could grab one of those iron bars and I pulled myself to it … It was like a funnel with too many things trying to get through the funnel.”
Mike Simkin: “It was 20-22 degrees that night, and I was soaked from head to toe by the time I got in there.”
Mike Simkin: One of the visions that I’ll never forget was there was, when I could get to the point where I could reach my head above the crowd a little bit, on my tippy toes to try to get some air, there was just this fog from people’s breath just hovering above this crowd.”
Mike Simkin: “I stood up and I looked at the doors and all the glass and hundreds and hundreds of faces pressed up the glass, another vision I’ll never forget. Just people trying to get in. Just humanity pressed up against the glass.”
Tammy Hart Fales: “So once we did hear the music, that’s when everyone started pushing forward and I actually went down on the ground, and Doug, who – thank God – was really tall, just picked me up.”
Steve Upson: “But as you’re going down, other people are going down too.”
Tammy Hart Fales: “Right.”
Steve Upson: “And people were yelling, ‘Back up!’ But people 10 people back didn’t know what was going on.”
Tammy Hart Fales: “They couldn’t hear it.”
Steve Upson: “And it was impossible to back up because it was that congested and tight."
Tammy Hart Fales: “I’m wanting to get up and how do I get up? And what do you? If you push down, you’re pushing down on someone to get up and you can’t. There’s no ground to step on. You’re stepping on an ankle and your foot is slipping. You’re not getting a solid stance. So, luckily, thank God, Doug was there … and just really grabbed me. Muscled me out.”
Steve Upson: “A group was down in front. Your vantage point, until you got pushed onto the pile, you couldn’t really tell what was going on. You would think you could get up, but there was no space to get up – except for standing on other people – and you’d get knocked back down again. So it got pretty chaotic, pretty scary at that moment.’
Watching The Show Go On
After the crowd rushed through the doors, Curbishley said a fire marshal told the band manager he was going to cancel the concert. But Curbishley argued that could create a huge panic if concertgoers – many of whom didn’t fully realize what had happened – were to leave through the death and pandemonium on the plaza. Another fire marshal agreed, and the show went on.
Matt Wergers: “The show is pretty much a blur. I couldn’t tell you one song they played that night .... I don’t know why we didn’t get up and leave.”
Steve Upson: “I couldn’t remember any songs they played. It was a blur.”
Tammy Hart Fales: “We just sat there.”
Steve Upson: “We didn’t clap. We didn’t get up."
Tammy Hart Fales: “Nope. We just kind of sat there.”
Matt Wergers: “Leaving the building was the most traumatic thing ever, because when I got outside with the police cars and ambulances, a mountain of clothing, shoes, whatever that people got ripped off their bodies basically.”
Mike Simkin: “Eventually we all gathered except for Steve .... We waited there for what seemed like an hour … We figured he went home with somebody else. The last thing in the world we were thinking is what happened.”
Mike Simkin: “Got in our car and got on the highway and turned on WEBN, and the first thing we heard was, ‘If you’re coming home from The Who concert, please stop and call your parents' because we’ve counted, I guess, seven people up to that point had gotten killed.”
Mike Simkin: “We went back to the Coliseum, must have been about 2 o’clock-ish, and just walked around calling out for Steve.
A friend’s sister went to General Hospital (now UC Medical Center) and identified Preston’s body. Simkin said he went to Preston’s house and sat in his room.
Mike Simkin: “He was just a guy who was just filled with joy and that spread to everybody that he was around.”
Mike Simkin: “Everybody called him Pipps. Pipps was a nickname that was given to him pretty early because of his appearance. He was very slight in appearance. Smallish with long, sort of straw-colored hair, bright eyes. Some freckles. And somebody in our group started calling him Pippi Longstocking (laughs), which shortened up to Pipps.”
Matt Wergers: “That was one of the most traumatic times of my life, you know, waking up and hearing your mom say your friend is dead.”
A Family Grieves
Anne Votaw, Stephan Preston's mother: “Stephan was a clown. He was an actor always. He had funny little quips. He got into a lot of trouble (laughs). He had a magnetism about him that drew people to him … I think he would have gone into the arts. But he loved music ever since he was 3 years old or 4 years old.”
David Votaw, Stephan Preston's stepfather: “Stephan liked to party, so that sort of fed into it all. It did make the house kind of Finneytown High Central … We were the sort of parents who had an open-door policy. We didn’t object. Better to keep them close to home than who knows where.”
Anne Votaw: “I think events like that can either divide a family or can pull them together in some ways. And we all pulled together.”
David Votaw: “There was no reason to suspect that this is dangerous. You know, your children are supposed to be safe at those events, and that’s just what we were talking about. Why did this have to happen?”
Anne Votaw: “None of us have gotten over it. There will never be an accommodation for getting over it. That just doesn’t happen."
David Votaw: “Inevitably, the kids on the ground got walked on, but as I said, I’m confident they were not alive at the time – that they were already gone … It’s the mental image of that moment. (Pats his wife on the hand) Yeah. It’s hard just imagining him being there."
Anne Votaw: “Don’t imagine.”
David Votaw: “It changed us enormously."
Anne Votaw: “I couldn’t wait to move out of that house, because every time I looked out the window, I could see Stephan’s friends still out there, because they lived down the street or in the neighborhood. And I just … it was very difficult.”
David Votaw: “We do often say, when we are having an experience of any kind, ‘What would it be like to have Steve here?’ or ‘What would he be doing now?’”
Anne Votaw: “Every December the Third, It’s very difficult. Very difficult.”
David Votaw: “He liked carrot cake, so we usually get one.”
Anne Votaw: “We get a poinsettia, so we can have Christmas with him. It’s difficult.”
A Teen's Life -- And Christmas -- Gone Forever
Scott Kirby, Karen Morrison’s cousin: “Karen was such a fantastic person. Lit up a room. Very friendly. Very vivacious. Always laughing. A little bit shy sometimes. Beautiful. She was the light of her family.”
Scott Kirby: “Christmas was coming. They decided not to have Christmas, and never did again.”
Scott Kirby: “The Who concert was her first concert. She was a little over a month shy of being 16. I remember the stories after the tragedy of my aunt and my uncle being a little bit leery of allowing her to go to the concert. It’s a big concert. It’s her first concert, but she was going with friends, one of her friends being Jackie.”
Scott Kirby: “It was just devastating, absolutely devastating. And the devastation didn’t stop there. It didn’t stop with the sudden knowledge that their daughter was dead. My uncle, who’s 91 years old, still grieves.”
Loss Also Touched Wyoming Community
Andy Bowes, Peter Bowes’ brother: “He played the guitar. I play guitar. We were rockers. I still am. At that point in time he was thinking about where he was going to go to school. And I was his older brother. I kind of showed him the ropes a bit.”
Andy Bowes: “He was a popular kid. He was a smart kid. He did very well in school. I’m not sure what he would have been. I really have no clue. I think whatever he would have been, he would have done well at.”
Andy Bowes: “They say the brightest stars burn out the fastest. And that’s kind of the way I look at him.”
Who Or What Was To Blame?
Mike Simkin: “I was mad about everything, the Coliseum, the band because they were part of it ... mad, you know? Everything surrounding those circumstances, I was upset with. As time went on, I can tell you it wasn’t the band’s fault. And I can tell you that we never blamed the band. We never blamed the band.”
David Votaw, Stephan Preston's stepfather: “All they needed was more ticket takers. The Coliseum is ringed by doors. I don’t now how many they have. I’ve only been in that building a couple of times, but it must have been dozens. All they needed to do was station people at each of those doors. Then there wouldn’t have been one big line.”
Tammy Hart Fales: “You had the doors that opened and then you had maybe 4 or 5 feet and then you had the turnstiles, where the ticket takers were, so it was like a slowdown – and you could even see them pushing inside the door.”
Matt Wergers: “I’m not going to blame festival seating. I won’t do it. I’m a believer in it. That’s all I can really say about that.”
Annie Hagerman, Jackie Eckerle’s sister: “I think what was hard is it was such a freak accident. It was hard to understand that you could be waiting in line for a concert and die … I think it was a perfect storm of bad decisions that night … I never did think it was The Who’s fault.”
Andy Bowes, Peter Bowes' brother: “It wasn’t the first general-admission concert seating in history. They had plenty of successful ones before this. This just, everything that could have gone wrong, it was Murphy’s Law.”
Mike Simkin: “With assigned seating, you know, it may be difficult for people to get good seats all the time, but I can tell you it’s safer. I can tell you what the most important thing is and that’s that your kid’s going to come home that night.”
Survivors Say They Were Robbed Of Their Youth
Matt Wergers: “It was a very traumatic time in my life. I don’t think the people of Cincinnati know the depth of us kids that were there. I was 18 years old and seeing what we saw, I know our parents and [their] parents were in wars and stuff, that’s the only way I can probably describe what I saw there is something so horrific that was instilled in my mind for the rest of my life."
Mike Simkin: “The physical pain over 40 years has faded. However, there is a part of me that has never really completely assimilated, completely understood what had happened that night at 18 years old. I’m with my friend. I’m looking at him face-to-face before we get in that line, laughing, you know, seeing those bright eyes and that smile looking at me, and that was the last time I ever saw him.”
How Finneytown Remembered Young Lives Lost
Mike Simkin: “That night, especially losing three dear ones, it sent a shock-wave through this town and through our people that’s indescribable and everlasting.”
Steve Upson: "It took the security and safety of Finneytown ... that anything could happen ... that you could die. It made it too real."
Tammy Hart Fales: "I was a little shocked and questioning how could it be that many from our school ... What do you say to people at school? How do you react? I'm 17 years old. I didn’t know how to act or react."
Matt Wergers: “Most of our friends, we don’t even talk about it anymore unless it’s at our function that we do every year. Then some people bring up something, but it’s very hush hush. Nobody really wants to talk about it. That’s why I’m glad that you’re kind of opening this up for us a little bit.”
It took 30 years, but several Finneytown grads created a living memorial in honor of Preston, Eckerle and Morrison. The annual P.E.M. Memorial Scholarship goes to three Finneytown graduates who demonstrate the same passion for music and art that Preston, Eckerle and Morrison shared.
Scott Kirby, Karen Morrison’s cousin: “They’ve turned this tremendous tragedy, this horrific event, this life-altering thing into something that they can feel good about. I can speak for my family and a few of the other family members that I’ve met that it helps us a great deal as well.”
The scholarship idea took fruit after Wergers, Simkin and other grads placed a memorial bench in front of the Performing Arts Center at the school. Under the direction of alum Fred Wittenbaum, a beautiful brick plaza was created around the bench, and plaques of the three former students now adorn the brick wall.
In 2018, Daltrey made a private visit to the school to pay his respects.
Every first Saturday in December, The P.E.M. Memorial Committee celebrates the Lives of their Three Friends with a performance by the Finneytown Alumni Band and local musicians to raise funds for the three scholarships. The next event is Dec. 7.
Remembering The Other Victims
WCPO attempted to contact relatives of other victims but was unable to contact them or never heard back. The other victims were:
- Walter Adams, Jr., 22, Trotwood, Ohio
- Connie Sue Burns, 21, Miamisburg, Ohio
- David Heck, 19, Highland Heights, Kentucky
- Teva Rae Ladd, 27, Newtown, Ohio
- Philip Snyder, 20, Franklin, Ohio
- Bryan Wagner, 17, Fort Thomas, Kentucky
- James Warmouth, 21, Franklin, Ohio
Statements From The Arena And Concert Promoter
Sean Lynn, Heritage Bank Center (Nov. 26, 2019): “The tragedy of December 3rd, 1979 is forever on our minds and hearts and the Southwest plaza will always be linked to the eleven concertgoers who lost their lives. We will never forget those victims and the many other Tri-State residents impacted by the events of that evening. We continue to be committed to the changes and ordinances that took effect worldwide as a result of this event and the safety and security of our patrons will always take priority.”
Larry Magid, Electric Factory Concerts (Dec, 5, 1979): “I know that my company, Electric Factory Concerts, and I firmly believe that the coliseum staff and the city police that were on duty at the time did all that they could to control a basically uncontrollable situation. We were faced with unexpected and unexplained circumstances that could not be controlled .. and instead of concentrating on putting the blame on any one particular party or set of parties at this point, our concentration will be to work with the task force that the mayor will appoint and to come up with the causes and work to prevent any future occurrences and to ensure the public safety and welfare at all future concerts.”
“I’m still pretty numb. It’s nothing that any of us can walk away from and forget.”
COMING MONDAY: PETE TOWNSHEND. Read what the Who's leader, songwriter and guitarist told WCPO about the Cincinnati concert and its impact on him and the band.