CINCINNATI - It’s too bad we can’t name all the heroes of Dec. 3, 1979 – family members, friends, first responders or strangers who aided helpless others caught in the crush of humanity outside The Who concert.
Still, it’s worth noting some of the people who acted heroically to try to save lives on the Riverfront Coliseum plaza, where 11 concertgoers died.
Many people agreed that there could have been more deaths or injuries if the band’s manager, Bill Curbishley, had not insisted that the concert go on.
“A fire marshal came to me and told me they were thinking of stopping the show. And I said, ‘That’s crazy! You cannot and I’m not going to allow you to stop the show,'" Curbishley told WCPO. But he also admitted, “I don’t know how I would have stopped them.
"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. And if keeping my band on stage saves even one life, to me, that’s what it’s about.’
“And then another fire marshal came out and said, ‘He’s right.’ And he concurred with me and he said, ‘We’ve got to be doing what we are doing now. We’ve got to clear this.’ So the band carried on on stage.”
Guy Ninio, just 22 and barely older than many of the concertgoers, was a paramedic hired to provide emergency care at rock concerts at the coliseum. He found himself alone in a nightmare after seven apparently lifeless bodies were carried into the first aid room within minutes. Ninio said the regular nurse on duty was in shock and incapacitated.
“I literally bust through her door, she’s curled up in the corner nearly in a fetal position … I count 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 bodies, and I mean the bodies were just coming in at her psychologically faster than she could accept them. And I had no one to help me,” Ninio said.
“I had seven code blues all at once and I had to decide which patient to work on, and my only criteria was who was the warmest and the pinkest. That was it. I had no idea what was going on. I had no idea what had happened. All I knew was … I had to do what I had to do.”
Dale Menkhaus, then a Cincinnati police lieutenant, was head of a 25-member police detail assigned to provide security outside the coliseum. He said he saw the crowd swelling outside the closed doors after the time when they were supposed to be opened.
“There is a point where I went inside and asked the promoter and the facility management people to open all the doors. I said, ‘This crowd is way too big. We’ve never had this. We’re going to have a problem. We need to open every door.’
“And they said, ‘Well, we don’t have enough ticket takers. We don’t have enough ushers to really do that.’
“I said, ‘It doesn’t matter, just open the doors.’ That became a major, major bone of contention,” Menkhaus said.
Because the Coliseum was privately owned, police didn’t have legal authority to order the doors opened, Menkhaus said. City council changed that afterward, he said.
Menkhaus said three factors - “the festival seating, the size of the crowd that was there early, and not enough doors opening” - were to blame for the tragedy. Besides 11 concertgoers killed, Menkhaus said 25 were transported to hospitals and 50 to 75 others were treated at the scene.
Forty years later, Curbishley, Ninio and Menkhaus shared their harrowing stories from that night in exclusive, face-to-face interviews with WCPO Anchor Tanya O’Rourke.
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 as an expanded documentary on the WCPO app on streaming devices.
Curbishley said he wasn't aware of the problem on the plaza until the concert had already started.
“It was a normal day. We went to the venue. I met with Larry Magid, who was the usual promoter in Philadelphia and he was promoting the show with a local promoter. It was just another ordinary day.
“I can well remember them going on stage and they were maybe the second number in and Larry came to me and said there was a problem up on the plaza level, and he thought it was the result of bad drugs.
"And he said, 'It’s looking really serious.' So I said, ‘Let’s go.’
“So I went up to the plaza level with him and when I got there it was awful. It was horrific. I mean, there were shoes and clothing everywhere. And the medical teams were working on a lot of the injured... I could see for sure that there were a couple that had passed away."
That’s when Curbishley said he encountered the fire marshals.
“I stayed up there for quite a while. And when the band actually came off at the end of their set, I got them very quickly and said, ‘Look, go back. Only do two songs. We’ve got a real serious problem. I’ll explain afterward.’
“I think they sensed it was something, with my tone and demeanor, there was something serious. So they went on, played, and came off. And I told them, at that time, I didn’t know there were actually 11 youngsters that died, but I did know there were deaths. And obviously it affected them greatly. It shook them a lot."
The incident shook Curbishley, too, and left him scarred by what he saw.
“I left a little bit of my soul in Cincinnati," he said. "It’s been very difficult to deal with. I’ve often thought, could we have done anything different? But in those days festival seating was very common. And, there hadn’t been a problem, really. I still don’t have adequate words to explain the feeling and the emotion I had there. To be surrounded by all of that and to see it and, you know, it’s difficult, very difficult."
He said talking about it has helped him. Curbishley has been working closely with the Finneytown High School grads who established a scholarship fund to honor the three Finneytown students who died on the plaza. Curbishley also helped arrange Roger Daltrey's private visit to Finneytown in 2018.
“I think that talking about it here and knowing that it’s going to go back to Finneytown, to Cincinnati as a whole, adds another layer for me to the healing process,” Curbishley said.
“If my actions on that night helped save at least one person, I’m hoping one day I might bump into that person without recognizing them and knowing it. Strange isn’t it?" he said.
“I’ve thought a lot about responsibility in life. And I don’t think we were responsible for anything that night that was bad. But I like to feel that I was responsible for possibly saving a few people, to be honest.”
Ninio said he was alone when he heard the call about trouble on the plaza.
“I broke out the exit door and it was chaos in the hallway and the first aid room was around the corner from the elevator bank and the stairway and, I mean, it was chaos. People were flying everywhere," Ninio said.
“After doing the initial triage, I picked this one kid. And I’ll never forget - red hair, freckled face. He’s the kid who keeps coming back to me [in his memory] and I initiated one-man CPR...
"I'm on the floor and John, a big old dude, walked into the room, and I just looked up and said, ‘John, just pick one and go.’" Ninio said. "It seemed like forever until we had any fire department cover, anybody else come into that room."
It would be good to report there was a happy ending, but there wasn't.
“None of them made it. Nobody survived," Ninio said. “I wish I could have done more, but I couldn’t have possibly done more. I gave it my all. I gave everything I had.”
Ninio told a heartbreaking story about one victim who was dropped at a concession stand.
"Somebody thought or had the infinite wisdom to think he was just passed out. He was then lifted up by passersby and put on a concession stand and they were selling hot dogs and pizza over this guy, who was already expired," Ninio said.
"I mean, the insanity was just over the top.”
Menkhaus said he saw danger building on the plaza from earlier in the afternoon.
“We had never experienced a crowd gathering that early. Historically, festival seating drew people very early in the day because festival seating is first-come, first-served," he said.
“At 1:30 in the afternoon, people had started to gather for an 8 o’clock concert. We actually were asked to come earlier. By 3 o’clock there were probably 500 people waiting to get in. And that grew exponentially. By 5 o’clock, we estimate probably 2,000 people waiting to get in.
“That continued to grow. The doors were supposed to open at 6:30 p.m. And our estimate at 6:30 p.m. was 12,000 people were waiting to get in. That was unbelievable. We had never experienced that before.
“They had 18,345 tickets sold that night. And then it was a series of just horrible issues that all came into play that caused the problem," he said.
“When the doors didn’t open at 6:30, you could feel that very anxious, the whole crowd anticipation. At about 7 o’clock, you could hear music outside. Now people are really anxious, thinking they’re missing something.
“It was about 7:20, almost 40 minutes late, when the doors finally opened. There were two banks of doors. There were eight doors on each side. And they only opened three to four doors on each side. With 12,000 people.
“When the doors opened, I was behind the crowd, and you could see the crowd compressed by almost a third. It was unbelievable to see that many people just crush into each other," Menkhaus said.
“Once they got through the doors, they had to go to ticket takers. Ticket takers can only process about 40 people a minute. And they only had about eight. National standards at the time were one ticket taker per 1,000 people, so they should have had at least 18.
“That crush and – again, festival seating is first-come, first-served – it’s bedlam. People running, pushing, jumping, jumping over walls, barricades just to get in. And it was shortly after that door opening that we started getting information there were people down in the crowd, but the crowd was so compressed we couldn’t get in,” Menkhaus said.
“We finally forced our way to the front of the crowd. I was with four officers. We found the first young lady pushed up against the door, completely blue. We got inside, rushed to the first aid room and couldn’t get in. I pounded on the door and they finally opened the door and I realized that this was a major, major issue. They said, ‘There’s no room.’ There were literally bodies all over the floor. There was no more room.
“Nobody was prepared for what happened," Menkhaus said. "Eventually, we had every rescue unit, EMT, paramedic unit in the city at the coliseum."
Menkhaus, who since retired as an assistant chief, said he "fully agreed" with the decision to continue the concert.
“I think it would have been a disaster to try and shut it down," he said.
He said he still worries that festival seating could cause another concert tragedy. He said he tried to convince city council not to remove its ban in 2004.
"I wrote multiple letters, was retired from the Cincinnati Police Department at time, recounting the issues with festival seating at the time, and it was pretty much ignored," he said.
Menkhaus said he recalls that night every year at this time.
“The anniversary comes up and I’ve thought over the years that many of those that died would be married and have their own kids and be worried about their kids going to a concert," he said. "It’s really sad that happened.”
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 TUESDAY: ROGER DALTREY. Read what The Who's singer and frontman told WCPO about the Cincinnati concert and its impact on him and the band.