Astroworld 2021

I was at Astroworld on November 5th, 2021 on assignment to cover the festival for a national outlet. Having never been to the festival, I was excited about covering the marquee event for the first time. Below is my story of how Friday began and evolved into one of the most horrifying moments in my life.

I arrived in Houston on Thursday evening to be in place for an early start on Friday. After a fun night in Montrose, I returned back to my hotel near the Galleria, going down my checklist of things I needed to do before fest day. With batteries charging and camera bag packed, I finally retired for the evening, alarm set for 12pm.

When booking my hotels, I was unable to get three nights by Astroworld which was located in the parking lot of NRG Stadium. I settled for one night in the Galleria area and then two nights within walking distance to the festival on Friday and Saturday. After checking out of my first hotel, I proceeded to the credential pick-up site which was located about 1.5mi off-site from the festival. That process was seamless and I was now on to check in at hotel #2. I approached the front desk of the Extended Suites and gave the woman my name to which she informed me that my reservation was actually for exactly one week later. I just sat there, knowing how fucked I was, but knew that I needed to make a move quickly if I wanted to make Yves Tumor’ 2:30pm set. I decided I would just drive to NRG, pay the $15 to park, get inside and then deal with trying to book a place after my 2:30pm set. I entered the stadium’s parking lot and was directed through a maze of orange cones to a lot that had open spaces. I could see the festival’s ferris wheel way off in the distance, so I was less than thrilled about the walk ahead of me.

My first festival checkpoint was the vaccination/covid testing people who were at the end of a lengthy barricade that snaked forever. Once cleared from there, I proceeded to escalate a staircase leading to a bridge that connected the attendee parking lot to a vacant lot that housed the festival entry point. It was at this moment that I heard a loud roar, the kind you’d hear in a battle scene of Braveheart. As I looked down the hill to my right, I saw a mob of what seemed like over a hundred kids rushing past the vaccination checkpoint. They were then met with a chain link fence that was climbed over at first but quickly after simply torn down.

This mob rushed past me and then re-congregated on the bridge where I heard someone yell “to the entrance!”. The crowd ran down the backend of the bridge’s stairs and headed towards the festival entrance.

This plan was foiled rather quickly as they were met by a half dozen Houston Police Department mounted on horseback. The mob pivoted, someone yelled “To the VIP!” and then made a mad dash for that smaller, unprotected entrance.

At this point, Houston Police and gate security closed a chain link fence preventing anyone from entering the festival. This upset growing number of people who were legitimate ticket holders who feared they were going to miss the early shows. There was a lot of yelling between the kids and the security and the temperature of the crowd began to rise.

“We’re innocent ticket holders!” yelled one kid who continued to badger security about how he was going to miss certain acts.

“It’s out of my hands you fucking idiot!” replied security.

Finally, security reinforcements showed up and those in line were slowly let in. I looked at my phone and saw I had ten minutes to make it to the Thrills stage for Yves Tumor. I took in some of the festival grounds and made my way towards the photo pit.

Things for Yves’ first three songs were pretty chill. I did notice some kids tightly pressed against the barricade but that kind of scene is common amongst front row attendees so I wasn’t too alarmed. Toro y Moi followed Yves Tumor and it was upon exiting the photo pit back into the general admissions area that I began to notice some uncomfortable congestion.

The crowd began to swell for Don Toliver and really became impassable for Roddy Rich. Festival organizers moved the photo pit entrance from stage left to stage right and this made entering and exiting a much smoother experience. This did nothing, however, for the thousands of fans stuck against the rail to the center of the crowd.

At the beginning of each performer from Toliver on, I noticed a sound that I could only equate to the sound a sports team’s fan base makes when a goal or touchdown is missed. But this sound was slower and more guttural. I quickly realized it was the sound of the crowd groaning as the surge began. Those in the front row took on the brunt of the pressure. I remember feeling an unusual sense of concern for those in the crowd and kept telling my photo peers that I seriously felt like someone could die in this crowd. I say this only because I have been shooting festivals for over eight years and have certainly seen festival attendees in distress, typically from heat exhaustion or dehydration. In all of the previous situations, I never feared for the life of someone. Medics were always quick to export and care for those in need. Friday afternoon and evening were entirely different, not for lack of concern, but they were simply finding themselves quickly outnumbered by demand.

The Thrills stage reached its thickest by the time Lil Baby and SZA made their appearances. There continued to be a surge from the center of the crowd towards the front. There were handfulls of fans who didn’t seem to mind the pressure and made photos and videos of the performers. But even then, you could tell the situation was tight for those involved.

After SZA, I made my way to the Chills stage, known to Travis Scott fans as Utopia Mountain, for Scott’s 8:45 set. Festival organizers informed media that we would be entering an offshoot that had a scanner allowing VIP to enter a narrow passageway that dissected the VIP crowd and those in GA. At the end of the passageway was the front of Scott’s catwalk. Media was held out of that zone until a few minutes before showtime and when the clock finally flashed 02:00, we were ushered in.

The long red line is where we were led in; the circle is the front of Travis Scott’s catwalk; the short red line is where the photographers shot from

Typically, photo pits are found in front, between the stage and the crowd, however when there is a catwalk, photographers are placed on one side and can operate in a “half pit” or sometimes will be allowed to line the side of the catwalk in the event an artist takes a stroll. By the time we arrived at the end of the catwalk, the channel that ran from the tip of the catwalk to the soundboard was full of photographers, videographers, medics, security and Houston Police Department. The space was extremely tight but we were ready to shoot. The second Travis Scott appeared on stage, all hell broke loose. People began pouring over the rails both conscious and unconscious. There were not enough medics and security to pull people out of the crowd. I witnessed a man ask for a medic who, after a few minutes of not receiving any help, fainted in the arms of a friend.

At one point I was pushed against the barricade and felt something sprinkle along my neck. I thought that the crowd was throwing beverages but when I turned around, I noticed a young lady vomiting as she was being pushed against the railing. This would happen a second time a few minutes later. I saw fear in the eyes of not only the attendees but also security and HPD.

The fear existed within me as well. There were moments were I could feel a growing pressure around me as the space between the two barricades become more and more clogged. Every time Scott’s pyrotechnics ignited, a rush of heat would come barreling down the channel. It felt like a literal hell on earth. But for me, some of the most troubling moments came when I would see people having a good time while the person next to them was slumping over the rail. How could someone be singing along, filming and photographing while the person next to them is in obvious trouble. That dichotomy for me was incredibly problematic. When I have fever nightmares, they're usually about someone experiencing great fortune or joy while someone next to them experiences incredible grief. I’ve never understood that is how my brain decides to handle having a fever during sleep, but I witnessed this first hand on multiple occasions Friday night. At one point, I saw a young security guard help a woman over the barricade and pointed at her where to exit. I noticed his hands were shaking and as he turned toward me, I saw he was also losing color. He had a very obvious paleness about him. I asked him if he was ok and he grabbed my forearm, shook his head up and down, indicating yes, but then quickly shook it side to side as his eyes rolled back. I screamed at someone to help him but they were occupied. The young man gained his eyes back and focused on me. I motioned for him to sit down and his eyes began to roll again, but this time a medic was on hand to assist him. I turned back around to continue shooting and couldn’t bring myself to look back to see how he was doing. It occurred to me in that moment that many people were having their own situations with those in need that were similar to what I had just experienced.

After the three songs were up, I began making my way towards the catwalk so I could exit to the right, down the original pathway that had brought us into the shooting area. A huge police officer yelled for us to turn around and head out the back, but I knew this was not correct as I had just seen that area as a dead end with people pushing towards us to get closer to the stage. The police officer noticed this as well and yelled for us to reverse our direction, now pushing us into a crowd of media trying to exit towards the back as well. For nearly two songs, we were log-jammed. No movement, no progress. Just screams for medics, screams for help.

Finally, I saw an opening and I ran for the catwalk. An officer there asked me if I was with “broadcast” to which I responded that I just wanted to get the hell out of there. He let me go down the pathway and eventually I exited back into GA. It is hard to convey the level of relief I felt when I made my way across the festival grounds towards my car. That feeling lasted less than twenty minutes, though, as I was halted by a screeching police car and a frantic officer who commanded me to “hold back” as nearly 20 ambulances and firetrucks rushed into the festival. While I knew in my core that something was horribly wrong, I was in denial of the potential for disaster until I started reading the bits of news coming out of the festival.

I struggled to sleep last night, but when I finally did manage to drift off, I was awoken every hour or so by the sounds of screaming coming from the hallway outside my hotel room. I finally got up to see what was going on and the hallway was empty. The realization that what I was hearing in my dreams was the product of the horror I’d witnessed a few hours prior was chilling.

Obviously, I cannot express enough my sorrow and my condolences for the families of those who perished last night. Writing about my experience has been cathartic and I hope helps paint a picture of what the lead up to the tragedy was like. It will go down as the saddest day in my shooting career.

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