The Dangers of Large Festival Crowds – Over 370 Die in Cambodia

Over 370 people were crushed to death when part of a dense crowd panicked during Cambodia’s water festival.

Festivals in every corner of the world attract people in great numbers, including the UK; anywhere large crowds gather there is inherent danger.

The management of large crowds is a very complicated science, studied by security specialist, academics and crowd management professionals over life-times. The world biggest events such as the Hajj in Saudi Arabia are organised by the world’s top experts in this field, because tragedies have occurred over the years resulting in many fatalities; the experts are winning the battle as the number of injuries and deaths at these types of events are falling.

In Cambodia nearly 2 million people gathered for the annual water festival. In its simplest terms crowd dynamics (as the science of crowd management is known) shows that much like a stone being thrown into a pool of water, when a small number of people panic and start to push to try and get away, people around them do the same and as the ripple grows, nothing can really be done to stop it unless, like a Tsunami, it reaches land (a break in or the edge of the crowd).

Anyone who has been to Wembley stadium or any similar large stadia, or gathering of people, will note how the police and stewards control a crowd; they break it down into component parts. Frustrating as this may seem when you are in a hurry to get home, there is good reason for it. It contains smaller manageable sections of a crowd and provides space for minor panics or disturbances to be controlled and not to ‘contaminate’ the crowd as a whole. The crowds in the Cambodian capital were about 25 times larger than a full house at Wembley…

The other principle of crowd dynamics is that if a crowd starts to push one way, it will inevitably push back with twice the force in the opposite direction. This vicious circle often continues until the energy is vented somehow, in smaller crowds there is usually the space either within the crowd itself or on the periphery of the crowd to absorb this additional energy.

When crowds are too dense or too large, there is no way for this energy to be absorbed and so it tends to stop only when one section of the crowd can no longer ‘respond’; because they are injured through crushing (against a solid obstruction or other people in the crowd); they have no leverage to respond because they have fallen to the ground or are injured; or the momentum in one direction exceeds the force available to prevent it.

The inevitable result is crushing and crush-injuries or fatalities. Crush-injuries are not as visually obvious as others types of injury, much of the damage being done internally; but they are extremely dangerous and can very quickly turn from a minor injury to a fatality, with few obvious symptoms; this is often exasperated by the time it takes to reach casualties in these situations.


So what can be done with large crowds to make them safe?

Even in relatively small crowds density is the important factor; even in a crowd of a few hundred when confined in a restricted space, the situations can quickly become dangerous.

Not so long ago I was in a very well known large venue in the UK when the crowd management system broke down and two crowds of several hundred were trying to push past each other in a small space, it was quickly obvious that this could easily turn into a dangerous situation, especially when a few younger members of the crowd, oblivious to the potential dangers, started to agitate the crowd.

The failure in that particular case was a lack of foresight and planning and they seemed to have no apparent plan B, C, D etc. let alone any effective emergency procedures. There has to be a plan for the worst case scenario, especially where tens of thousands of people are expected and there has to be flexibility in that plan.

Rigidity is the failure of many such plans. A crowd management plan should not rely on common sense of the people in the crowd, common sense is after all the first casualty during panic as the emotional / instinctive part of the brain takes over from logic and rational thinking.

The planning should consider every eventuality, no matter how remote the possibility; it is these unlikely combinations of events which escalate situations, turn them into problems and can result in tragedy.

But it is avoiding situations in the first place, which is the safest option. Plan effectively, manage professionally and employ only highly experienced professionals capable of recognising all the signs of danger as they appear and able to respond the changes in circumstances quickly to implement alternate action plans.


Some of the danger signs to watch out for:

  • Large uncontrolled crowds where control is heavy-handed and static, rather than fluid.
  • The density of the crowd growing; is often an early indication of poor crowd control.
  • Obstructions (such as vehicles, street barriers etc.) in the way of the general movement of the crowd; they will naturally increase the crowd density without slowing the momentum.
  • Crowds being guided towards areas enclosed by fixed structures where there is no escape route going forward.
  • Constriction of space; going from a wider space to a more constricted space, very much like when the motorway goes from 4 lanes to 2.
  • Smaller groups within a crowd involved in agitation; chanting, any type of aggression or even seemingly good natured ‘horse play’ getting physical.
  • Crowds growing in numbers exponentially.
  • External factors which may ‘spook’ parts of the crowd; such as the action of the security, appearance of a celebrity, power failure, structural collapse or even a sudden change in the weather. 


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To view the original article – Cambodian stampede at water festival leaves 378 dead

Source – Metro 

Date – 23rd November 2010

Submitted by – Peter Mayhew