Houston – Barely a year after the COVID-19 pandemic froze the world, a two-day open-air festival brought men and women, children and young adults from across the country to Houston.
“It was my first festival ever,” said Diego Mata. “I was just excited.”
The excitement for Travis Scott at the Astroworld Festival on Nov. 5, 2021 quickly turned to panic, confusion and devastation. 10 young people, the youngest just 9-years-old, lost their lives as a result of the crowd crush during Travis Scott’s performance.
In an hour-long documentary, KPRC 2 Investigates shares the stories of those who attended the festival, examines what went wrong and pinpoints what needs to be done to prevent another mass casualty incident in Houston.
“I would like to see someone held responsible for this, but I’m not 100% confident,” said Diana Cruz, Ayden’s mother.
“It’s like drowning,” said Ayden Cruz. “So I prayed to [God] and asked for, you know, a second chance...and I prayed over my girlfriend.”
Memories at Astroworld
Before Astroworld became synonymous with tragedy, it was a name that hearkened back to the childhood of so many in the Houston area.
“I remember going there with my family, my parents, my brothers...” said Bill Barajas, a reporter at KPRC and Houston native. “I still remember the rides, I still remember them by name.”
The theme park gates were closed for good on Oct. 30, 2005, leaving generations with their memories, that is, until Travis Scott introduced his new plans for a festival.
“I think the intention was to create something like that with an event like this and I think that’s why there was so much excitement about it,” said Aaron Fernandez-Wische, the assistant news director of KPRC.
Even for those who never experienced the Astroworld theme park were excited for Scott’s festival that celebrated hip-hop and Houston.
“[Scott] loves Houston so much and you know, he based an album off Astroworld, which is you know, Houston,” said Viviana Irachete, a Sam Houston University student.
“I wanted to be able to create some memories with my girlfriend who had never been to a concert,” said Ayden Cruz, an 18-year-old Houston native who was among the thousands at Astroworld.
The warning signs at the gate
Walking through the gates at NRG Stadium, everything appeared normal for the type of festival, but the warning signs were there, according to several young attendees.
“You see a lot of people running throughout the sides of the roads,” said Cielo Barrientos, a Sam Houston University student who attended the festival. “So they were the ones that were trying to jump over the gates. And keep in mind, this was at 11:00 in the morning.”
Barrientos and Irachete went together to the Astroworld festival. Both had attended previous festivals and were prepared for the chaos.
“When we got there and walked up, there [were] cops with horses just lined up...I guess prepared for what was to come they. They know how these kids get at these concerts,” said Irachete.
A Houston Fire Department commander was stationed offsite from the festival grounds, but spent hours monitoring six radio channels while documenting any incidents at the event.
At 9:15 a.m., Houston police officers prepared to open the gates to the festival.
Five minutes later, the log notes “participants breached secondary checkpoint.”
Three minutes after, the log notes “participants have breached main gate and bypassed COVID testing checkpoint.”
The venue gates officially opened at 10 a.m. on Nov. 5, 2021.
“It was very clear that by what was happening with the folks rushing in through the gates several times throughout that day that HPD could really do nothing but try to minimize that as much as possible,” said Barajas.
“I told my reporter, Barajas, at the time, ‘it just doesn’t feel right, you know, there’s too many red flags, they’re already storming...it’s two o’clock in the afternoon,” said Rolando Hinojosa, former KPRC photographer.
The chaos continues inside
Once inside the venue, the chaos continued based on interviews with attendees and fire department records.
“People were already jumping trying to get over and grab shirts and I was told even registers from one of the officers,” said Sean Thomas, who attended the festival as student media.
The HFD activity log notes that by 10:30 a.m., more police were called to help at merchandising.
At 11:49 a.m., police officers shut down merchandise due to the crowd.
“We were about to go next and they were like that’s it, like no, we’re not selling merch anymore today,” said Irachete.
Attendees who talked with KPRC 2 Investigates said the true chaos started when rapper Don Toliver hit the stage.
“That was probably the first sign that it was gonna be a pretty upbeat, rowdy day,” said Thomas. “I think that’s about 3 p.m.”
The countdown to tragedy
The Astroworld Festival venue had two stages, but Scott’s main stage was designed to look like a giant mountain in the background.
The stage included a long walkway section that split the crowd in half.
“There was a barricade in the middle dividing...while we were waiting, people were throwing stuff at the other side,” said Mata. “There were a few fights, but that’s normal from festivals. People are drunk and just doing stupid things.”
The dark mountain loomed in the background of the stage and there was a giant countdown clock on a screen. Other screens alternated phrases.
“The next thing you, it hit zero,” said Thomas. “You just feel bass and a beat starts to build.”
“So, everybody is pushing to see Travis Scott,” said Barrientos.
“It was a good experience for a few minutes,” said Mata. “But after the first song, I was like, wow, my ribs are getting bruised.”
“I just felt like I had to escape,” said Ashley Gwananji, a University of Houston student.
“I had my girlfriend there with me and she, like, had never been to a concert. So she’s looking at me like, is this normal,” said Cruz.
Each concertgoer interviewed by KPRC 2 Investigates shared similar stories of being trapped in the crowd, being pushed or slammed against, and either falling over or feeling suffocated.
All of them watched the concert from different points in the crowd. Ayden Cruz was in the section where a majority of the victims were crushed to death.
Cruz and several of his friends, including Brianna Rodriguez who died as a result of the crush, were in the upper left quadrant of the floor.
The initial wave of people moving forward as Travis Scott exploded onto the stage was normal, according to Cruz. When the forward push did not subside, Cruz says the crush became unbearable.
“It was like, I don’t know, I guess like a falling pit,” said Cruz.
Cruz remembers seeing people continuing to fall into the “pit” and “stacking on each other like dominoes.”
“I just started praying,” said Cruz. “I accepted my death and then like I learned in church, just repent and pray to God.”
Bill Spencer: “Truly, who do you believe saved you at that moment?”
Ayden Cruz: “God. For sure God. There’s no one, there’s no other explanation in my mind that could have saved me. I don’t take credit for what I even did or like the blessing to even still be here today. That was all God.”
‘It’s an unspeakable tragedy’
In the hours after the concert, many attendees who were in safer positions learned of the injuries and deaths. Some had come back to the venue to pick up lost items.
But as word spread, people returned to leave flowers, candles and other items as a memorial to those who died.
“No parent, no friend, no sibling should see their loved one off to a concert of a world renowned artist and not be able to expect them to come home safely,” said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo the morning after the festival.
Hidalgo announcing that the county was committed to getting answers to the “unspeakable tragedy.”
Houston Police Chief Troy Finner also announced homicide officers were on the scene conducting a criminal investigation.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner adding that numerous agencies would be looking at what happened “from the beginning to the end.”
Texas Governor Greg Abbott also weighed in by forming a task force to review what happened saying “the state needs to be involved to make sure we have some statewide protocols.”
Even federal lawmakers promised to investigate more than a month after the tragedy. The House Committee on Oversight and Reform launched a bipartisan investigation into what happened.
Yet to this day, no local, state or federal agency has arrived at a decision as to who is responsible for the deaths of 10 young people.
‘Everyone’s pointing the finger at one another’
Nearly a year later, the city-county task force, formed following the Astroworld Festival, is nearing the completion of a joint agreement in managing largescale events at NRG and other venues in the future.
However, the partnership has yet to release any details of the agreement.
KPRC 2 Investigates spoke to city and county representatives at public events about the changes to policies and procedures in the wake of Astroworld.
“Have any of the requisites changed for the city as a result of what took place with Astroworld for large events,” asked Mario Diaz, KPRC 2 investigative reporter.
“You know there is always room for improvement and tweaking, we are looking at,” said Susan Christian, the city director for special events, adding, “Change significantly, I would say no.”
City councilmember Abbie Kamin pointed out that Astroworld was not on city property.
“It was city public safety that had to step in at the last moment, but that is not city property,” said Kamin. “Again, this is about looking at all the different opportunities here and we have a bite of the apple here where we can focus on what the city can control and that is making sure there are enough eyes and a proper plan in place ahead of time so it’s not a stress on safety.”
Similarly, Harris County Precinct Two Commissioner Adrian Garcia shared the partnership would not look at culpability, but at changes.
“Well, look tragedies, regretfully sometimes, realize the necessity to review things and that’s why this initiative is all forward looking, we can second guess what happened in the past to some degree, but that’s not what we need to pay attention to, we need to look forward,” said Garcia.
The task force led by the Texas Music Office also did not look at who may have been responsible for the tragedy.
Instead, the office released a number of best practices for future mass events.
One of the findings included the jurisdictional confusion over NRG Stadium. There is a memorandum of understanding about how the county and the city will work together since NRG is a county property within city limits.
Related: Gov. Abbott’s task force on concert safety releases list of recommendations to prevent future tragedies like Astroworld Festival
Director Brendon Anthony says that MOU created a gray area and only added to the confusion of who was in charge.
Anthony also stated that the state task force did not interview local agencies because of the number of civil lawsuits.
“Well, we respected that a number of these parties were involved in lawsuits at this point, so we did not reach out to the mayor’s office or others,” said Anthony. “Our goal was to set aside these best practices for creating mass gathering permits in Texas.”
Anthony would not confirm if local officials intentionally did not answer questions or if they did not ask due to the civil litigation.