”It doesn’t take an Einstein to know that young people attending a rap concert…who have paid as much as $20 a ticket, would not be very happy and easy to control if they were unable to gain admission to the event because it was oversold.” Those were the words of Judge Louis C. Benza of the New York State Court of Claims in sorting out the question of civil liability for one of the worst music-related tragedies in recent American history. Judge Benza’s 73-page decision, issued seven years after nine young people died in a crowd stampede on this day in 1991, placed 50 percent of the blame for those deaths on the venue’s owner, the City University of New York, and 50 percent on the event’s promoters, rapper Dwight “Heavy D” Myers and the then largely unknown hip-hop impresario Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs.
The event in question was billed as the first annual “Heavy D and Puff Daddy Celebrity Charity Basketball Game,” a fundraising event for AIDS charities. Its draw, however, had little to do with basketball and everything to do with the scheduled participation of major music celebrities from the world of early 1990s hip-hop and R&B: Heavy D, Run-DMC, Big Daddy Kane, Ed Lover, Jodeci, Boyz II Men and Michael Bivins of Bell Biv DeVoe. While Sean Combs would later claim that no more than 2,150 tickets were sold to the event in the 2,730-capacity Nat Holman Gymnasium at City College, that account came under dispute in the event's aftermath. Regardless of how many tickets were sold, however, what is clear is that an overflow crowd of at least 3,000 would-be attendees had gathered outside the building’s 138th Street entrance, and that the crowd had grown restless and unruly as the event’s scheduled 6:00 p.m. starting time came and went.
Shortly after 6:00 p.m., according to eyewitness accounts, the crowd outside broke at least one of the glass doors separating them from the building lobby. Despite the presence of at least 66 New York City Police officers, 38 City College campus-security officers and 20 private security guards hired by the event’s promoters, the crowd was able to surge through those doors and rush into the building shortly after 7:00 p.m., when the event finally got underway. Once inside the lobby, the crowd rushed down a short set of stairs leading to the gymnasium. At the bottom of those stairs, however, were four swinging doors—three of them closed—that opened not into the gymnasium, but into the stairwell. While the 3,000-strong crowd surged forward obliviously, those people who reached the stairwell first were caught in a crush that would leave eight dead on the scene and 29 others injured, one of whom would later die of her injuries at St. Luke’s Hospital.