Mass-panic is a function of self-preservation. Members of the pack can save precious flight time in the midst of a dangerous threat by tying their own rational behaviour to the rational behaviour of the collective. Presumably, this lets you reap the benefits of the horde—when any one member perceives a threat and determines the rational response, the rest simply follow course; no time to determine specifics. At least that’s probably how it’s supposed to work.
Herds of cattle have been known to erupt into stampedes at the sight of hostile tumbleweed, or a match being struck in the night. When we transpose this impulsive gang-thinking to humans, that’s where concepts like “crowd control” and “riots” arise; concepts denote an increased likelihood of highly potent, unpredictable and potentially irrational behaviour when masses of people unite.
In contrast to our self-ascribed notions of rational self-determination, the evidence of sudden stampedes and mass-panics suggests another force at work that can easily render human beings no more in control of themselves than a bison in a herd, or a bird in a flock. Here’s an overview of the 8 most fatal stampedes and mass panics in recorded human history, and their often bizarre causes.
8 Shoving match in Cambodia, 2010: 357 Fatalities
Every year in November when the life-giving Tonle Sap River reverses flow, millions visit Cambodia’s capital for the three-day Bon Om Touk festival, or Water Festival. A lot like Chinese dragon boat festivals, the event includes boat races, live music and all-around jubilation in Phnom Penh. But just before the 2010 festival wrapped up, a large crowd got “stuck on a bridge” over the river for several hours. With both ends of the crowd trying to shove their way through, pressure gave in the middle: A sudden panic toppled several hundred bridge-stranded and crushed 357 to death in minutes.
7 Stoning the devil, 2006: 362 Fatalities
At some point in the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia — one of the five pillars of Islam and the biggest Muslim gathering in the world — the likelihood for being trampled to death skyrockets. Starting on the 10th day of the final month in the Islamic calendar, pilgrims hurl stones at one of the large jamrah (walls symbolizing the devil) over the course of several days. Sudden changes in crowd movements, especially on or near the Jamarat Bridge, have caused fatal stampedes at least five separate years. In 2006 it left 362 dead and 289 injured after a busload of pilgrims came barrelling through the eastern access ramps into the estimated crowd of two million, rushing to complete the ritual by sundown of the last day.
6 A better view of the procession, 1954: 800 Fatalities
Every three years, Hindus travel to one of 4 Indian cities to bathe in their sacred rivers for the Kumbh Mela—the largest peaceful gathering in the world. The 1954 destination was the Indian city of Allahabad, at the intersection of the Yamuna and Ganges. Had the Ganges River not changed course and flooded more of the city’s embankment that year it might’ve never happened, but all it took was a passing procession of holy men to send a stampede surging through the tight city quarters to catch a glimpse: Some 800 were trampled to death or drowned in the river.
History repeated itself in February 2013, when another Kumbh Mela stampede in Allahabad killed 36.
5 Crying “bomb” at a pilgrimage, 2006: 953 Fatalities
It was the midst of the Iraq War in 2005. Early in the day August 31, an Al-Qaeda mortar attack on the crowd killed seven and injured dozens. As a million pilgrims marched wearily on to Baghdad’s Al Kadhimiya Mosque, rumours of a suicide bombing began waving through the crowd. As the crowd arrived, someone struck the match.
When one pilgrim pointed his finger and cried bomb, the crowd flocked to the non-operational Baghdad bridge, breaking through its barred gate, trampling over hundreds and filling the bridge until its iron railings failed. Hundreds more fell 9 meters into the Tigris and drowned, increasing the casualty count to 953.
4 Free beer and pretzels, 1896: 1,389 Fatalities
Spring 1896: Nicholas II, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias has just been crowned and All the Russias are a-celebrating. As a gesture for the people, Nicholas builds multiple theaters, 150 buffets and 20 pubs to host a banquet bonanza near Moscow’s Khodynka Field—all within the area of one town square. When Nicholas promises everyone free bread rolls, a free piece of sausage, free pretzels and a cup (yes a cup) his banquet becomes a death trap.
At 5 a.m. of the morning, the Tsar’s event attracts a “line-up” of 500,000 in Khodynka Field, all certain the banquet is understocked on free beer and pretzels. The ensuing beer rush, and subsequent panic rush to flee the area, tramples 1,389 people to death.
3 Race to the holy site, 1990 : 1426 Fatalities
It’s the worst Mecca incident in modern times, and nobody can really explain it beyond the fact that there were way too many fervently religious people in one place. The 1990 stampede broke out in a long closed pedestrian tunnel leading out from Mecca towards the Plains of Arafat. For whatever reason, the tight overcrowded tunnel broke out into pandemonium that crushed or suffocated 1,426 pilgrims on the 2nd of July, 1990. Six major stampedes have happened since.
2 Air raid panic, 1941: 4,000 Fatalities
Between 1938 and 1943 the Japanese army routinely attacked China’s wartime capital city, Chongqing, in a series of terror bombings that targeted Chinese civilians and residential areas. Huge squadrons of air bombers went mostly unopposed by the weak Chinese Air Force in the early war years, leading Chongqing civilians to rely heavily on impromptu tunnels and air-raid shelters for safety. In the midst of one particularly nasty bombing on June 6, 1941, 4,000 civilians would’ve probably fared better in the streets.
The bombing had gone on for hours, but when the warning sirens finally ceased and the relieved crowd had half-filed from the shelter, the sirens sounded again. The startled crowd struggling back into the shelter caused 4,000 deaths—nearly half the total casualties of the Chongqing raids.
1 Running from Napoleon, 1809: 6,000 Fatalities
Portugal could do little to resist Napoleon’s dividing and conquering of Europe in the early 19th century. The country’s invasion, which kicked off the Peninsular War and the seven-year fight for the Iberian Peninsula, turned out nearly bloodless. But naturally civilians weren’t too happy about an Imperial French corps marching through their backyards. France’s presence remained precarious for many years; civilian riots and revolts were commonplace, and hoards of civilians routinely fled to their biggest colony, Brazil.
In March, 1809, as Napoleonic troops marched into Porto, Portugal, a giant civilian ditch-force tried to flee across the Douro River via the Ponte das Barcas. As you can guess, the fragile pontoon bridge collapsed and an estimated 6,000 died in the river.