Monday, April 25, 2011

Crush Point

Crush Point, John Seabrook, The New Yorker, February 8, 2011

"On Thanksgiving Day, 2008, shoppers began lining up outside the Wal-Mart in Valley Stream, Long Is-land, at 5 :30 P.M., near a small, handwritten sign that read "Blitz Line Starts Here." Like many other retailers holding "doorbuster" Black Friday sales, Wal¬Mart was offering deep discounts on a limited number of TVs, iPods, DVD players, and other coveted products. Only two months earlier, the U.S. economy had nearly collapsed, and although the Christmas shopping season was looking dismal, there was still some dim hope that the nation might be able to shop its way out of disaster, as we were advised to do after 9/11.

By two in the morning, the line ran the length of the building, past Perland, turned at a wire fence, and stretched far into the bleak parking lot of the Green Acres Mall, a tundra of frosted tarmac. There were already more than a thousand people. Store managers had placed eight interlocking plastic barriers between the front of the line and the outer doors to the store, to create a buffer zone that would keep people from crowding around the entrance. But at three people began jumping the barriers. The store's assistant manager, Mike Sicuranza, spoke to the manager, Steve Sooknanan, who had gone to a hotel to rest, and told him that customers had breached the buffer zone. Sicuranza sounded frightened. Sooknanan told him to call the police.

The Nassau County police arrived soon after the call, and, using bullhorns, ordered everyone to get back behind the barriers. The police were still there at four, when Sooknanan returned to the store. Shortly afterward, a Wal-Mart employee brought some family members inside the barriers, angering the crowd. About two hundred shoppers pushed into the buffer zone. Those in front were squeezed against two sliding glass outer doors that led into a glassed-in, high-ceilinged entrance vestibule that also held some vending machines. These had been pushed to the center of the space, to prevent people from crossing it diagonally and entering through the exit doors. As more people gathered, in anticipation of the store's opening, at 5 A.M., the pressure on the doors built and they began to shake. "Push the doors in!" some chanted from the back.

Employees asked the police for help.

According to a court filing, the police responded that dealing with this crowd was "not in their job description," and they left. Of the two-man security force that Wal-Mart had hired for Blitz Day, only one had shown up, and he was inside the store. Shortly before five, the crowd had grown to about two thousand people. The store's asset-protection manager, Sal D'Amico, advised Sooknanan not to open the doors, but Sooknanan overruled him. He instructed eight to ten of his largest employees, most of whom worked in the stockroom, to stand at the sides of the vestibule as the outer doors were opened, and be ready to help anyone who tripped or fell.

One of those men was Jdimytai Damour, who lived in Jamaica, Qweens; his parents were Haitian immigrants. Damour was thirty-four, and beefy-at six feet five inches tall, he weighed around four hundred and eighty pounds. Friends called him Jdidread, because he wore his hair in dreadlocks. He had been working at Wal-Mart for about a week, as a temporary employee in the stockroom. Like the others in the vestibule, he had no training in security or crowd control. A co-worker had reportedly heard him say earlier, "I don't want to be here."

Just before five, the workers realized that a pregnant woman, Leana Lockley, a twenty-eight-year-old part-time college student from South Ozone Park, was being crushed against the glass on the outer doors. The managers slid them open just enough to pull Lockley inside the vestibule. The crowd surged forward, thinking that the store was opening. The workers shut the doors again and braced both sliding doors with their bodies to keep them from caving in, as Sooknanan initiated the festive countdown, a Wal- Mart Blitz Day tradition. Ten, nine, eight ... At zero, the doors were opened again. There was a loud cracking sound as both sliding doors burst from their frame, and the crowd boiled in.

Dennis Fitch, one of the workers standing at the entrance, was blown backward, through the inner vestibule doors and into the store. Others man-aged to jump to safety atop the vending machines. Some attempted to form a human chain on the other side of the vestibule, to slow down the crowd rushing into the store. A crush soon developed inside the vestibule, but the people who were still outside, pushing forward, weren't aware of it. Leana Lockley was carried through the vestibule and into the store by the surge, and she tripped over an older woman, who was on the ground. As she got to her knees, she later said, she saw Damour next to her. "I was screaming that I was pregnant, I am sure he heard that," she told Newsday. "He was trying to block the people from pushing me down to the ground and trampling me .... It was a split second, and we had eye contact as we knew we were going to die."

Co-workers later testified that Damour was hit by one of the two sliding glass doors. As he went down, the door fell on top of him, and people fell over it. Maybe he got up again to help Lockley, but that's not clear in camera and cell-phone-video footage of the scene. He just vanishes into the frantic tangle of limbs."

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I think that this type of situation is an example of a complex system moving from one with emergent properties (like a school of fish or a flock of birds) to a complex system in a critical state (nonequilibrium - like an earthquake or a landslide).

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