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Men recall what happened when 11 lost lives at The Who concert 35 years ago

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Posted at 8:57 AM, Dec 03, 2014
and last updated 2014-12-03 14:59:34-05

On Dec. 3, 1979, an estimated 18,500 fans waited outside what was known as Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati, Ohio to see The Who in concert.

Eleven of them never returned home.

A slew of people awoke that day with excitement in their hearts and one thing on their minds: the concert they were attending that evening.

I had thought of that very concert and those very people countless times. As an overall fan of music growing up in Cincinnati, you couldn’t help but think of the people.

It boiled down to three simple words: The Who Tragedy.

More: Remembrance event in Cincinnati tonight

One frigid December evening in 1994, I laid in bed with a Walkman — yes, a Walkman — and listened to the lunatic fringe of American FM, 102.7 WEBN, broadcast an anniversary remembrance of the Who tragedy at the former Riverfront Coliseum. Spliced between radio broadcasts from the scene Dec. 3, 1979, was an array of Who tunes … one in particular— Baba O’Riley — which stuck in my craw.

I knew little of the disaster that happened that evening, other than 11 people had been killed in a human stampede.

Something gnawed at me, though.

I’m not sure if it was The Who’s music — of which I later became an avid fan — or just an irregular attachment to something that occurred when I was all of 2 years old.

Either way, I listened to that anniversary broadcast until midnight — on a school night — and, though I didn’t know those who perished at the feet of an unruly mob, I felt a kinship. They loved music.

So do I.

Years later, I was more than a thousand miles from Cincinnati. Uncle Sam had brought me to Ft. Lewis, Washington, just south of Seattle.

I spent an evening celebrating a belated birthday with, of all bands, The Who.

As I walked into Key Arena that evening with a friend from Los Angeles, the tragedy came to be the focus of my thoughts once again.

What did those people think as the air was crushed out of them? What did they pray for?

Was this band they wanted to see worth dying for?

When Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend — Entwhistle and Moon were long gone — burst into Baba O’Riley, I instantaneously thought of 11 dead fans. Fans who simply had wanted to do what I was doing at that very moment … listening to one of their favorite bands and enjoying the rhythm music gives your soul.

That rhythm was stolen from them.

I’ve never been able to forget it.

Two years ago I was headed to work, and again listened to a local radio broadcast about the anniversary. As I headed home later, excitement coursed through my blood in preparation for a Misfits concert I was attending that night.

Much like it had in 1979 for thousands of The Who's concertgoers.

I passed what is now US Bank Arena — the former Riverfront Coliseum — on the way to the venue where the Misfits show is. As I neared the arena, my hands steered the car into a parking garage underground.

Six dollars later, I found myself in an elevator, heading up to the very spot where the horror occurred.

I don’t know why I did it. I knew no one involved in the incident, and I was only 2 years old when it happened.

But there I was, a moth drawn to a flame.

Upon reaching the plaza level of the arena, I noticed another gentleman walking slightly in front of me, clutching a bouquet of flowers.

I followed him.

We reached the same spot, but I kept a fair distance. I knew why he was there and I couldn’t intrude on his visit to hallowed ground.

He noticed me, and we nodded to each other.

“Hey, would you give me a hand?” he said to me.

I made my way toward him. Introductions were trivial at that point.

We knew why the other was there — it was an inexplicable connection.

“Were you here that night?” he asked me.

“No, sir,” I said. “I was only 2.”

“You’re here remembering though, aren’t you?”

“I am. I’m on my way to a concert tonight and I felt I needed to come here.”

“I’m 50 and I was here that night. I had a girl die in my arms. I come back every year and put flowers on these doors. You mind holding them while I tape them up?”

“Definitely.”

I never got his name, but it didn’t matter. He spoke of shielding a 9-year-old boy against the wall of the arena, then trying to protect a 15-year-old girl who later died.

He described the scene: Broken glass turned to a fine dust — shimmering like snow in the sunlight, he said — and piles of shoes and clothing.

As he spoke, another man, who later introduced himself as Dave, walked toward us.

Dave, 44 now, had been there as an 11-year-old.

“We got carried out of our shoes,” Dave said.

There was a knot of bodies, a mass of humanity, attempting to storm the arena doors because they mistook a sound check by the band as the actual show starting.

Both cursed the police who worked that evening. Dave showed us his mangled right hand, a permanent souvenir of that night that landed him in a hospital, missing the show entirely.

As an 11-year-old.

My oldest daughter turned 11 in 2012. It jarred me.

The other gentleman pantomimed his actions against the wall — what he did in order to survive the insane rush. 

Both laid homemade tributes, candles and flowers, at the very doors that, had they been opened wide 35 years ago, would have saved lives. But much like then, they were locked tight that night.

Dave and the other man, now known as D.A.W.— his signature attached to his note taped to the glass door — swapped memories of hurt. They glanced out over an empty, drab, gray concrete plaza.

They envisioned the shoes, the broken glass, the emergency crews.

The bodies.

I, an imposter, could only stand by and listen. They were two combat veterans, walking an ancient battlefield both fought upon.

It was music’s Gettysburg. Ghosts lingering on the concrete.

Their stories brought a squall of water to my eyes. All these two men wanted that night, much like everyone else, was to spend a night immersed in life.

Immersed in music.

Instead, Dave can’t be around crowds anymore and it took D.A.W. three years to even want to be around people again after Dec. 3, 1979.

Three more men joined us. One an intrigued passerby, who — by the strict grace of his parents — informed us he had been forbidden to go to see The Who that night.

The others, a two-man arena cleaning crew, stopped and remember as well, vicariously. Neither had been there that night.

That didn’t matter on this day, however. Instead, the memory and those still keeping it alive, not allowing it to fade in a society bent on forgetting what happened five minutes ago, was what mattered.

Like most survivors, ears to speak into about their experience is what mattered to Dave and D.A.W.

That and remembering the fallen, some only teenagers.

I eventually faded into the distance, back into the night, realizing I had been there a half-hour already and was late to my concert.

But before I left, I heard D.A.W. telling Dave it was a shame he missed the show.

“Sadly, it was the best f***ing show I have ever been to.”

I went to my concert that night. I communed with fellow music lovers, felt the world at my fingertips and felt the power of song in my bones.

I also walked out alive, with D.A.W’s words echoing in my mind and ringing true for me, at that very moment in time.

“It was the best f***ing show I have ever been to.”

In memoriam of the 11 music lovers who tragically and undeservedly lost their lives Dec. 3, 1979 at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum: The fires still burn for you.

James Sprague is a reporter and editor for a newspaper in southeastern Indiana.