Puff Daddy Gives Testimony Says Stampede Wasn’t His Fault [1998-03-24]

Salvatore Arena [New York Daily News]

Rap music king Sean (Puff Daddy) Combs says he’s not to blame for the 1991 stampede at City College in which nine people were killed and dozens injured at a celebrity basketball game he organized.

Combs took the witness stand yesterday at a multi-million-dollar negligence trial in the state Court of Claims to publicly answer questions about his role in the incident for the first time.

Combs testified that CCNY was responsible for security and safety at the celebrity game. He denied overselling tickets to the event and said police ignored his request for help when the crowd became unruly. The stampede occurred after hundreds of people tried to push their way into the jam-packed gym.

Outside court, the rapper offered an apology for the incident and condolences to the victims and their families.

“I am sorry for being the promoter of the event,” he said. “I just pray for the families and pray for the children who lost their lives every day. It’s a tragic event, and my heart goes out to the families.”

But his statements did little to mollify the bitterness of survivors and their kin who are suing him and the City University for millions of dollars in damages. Several asked yesterday why Combs has remained publicly silent for seven years.

“He’s passing the buck, passing the blame instead of accepting responsibility,” said Nicole Levy, 23, who escaped the crush but watched as her best friend died.

“I feel he was coached to lie,” said Benjamin Andrews, 30, another survivor whose 17-year-old cousin, Leonard Nelson, was killed. “He’s trying to cover himself.”

The ill-fated basketball game was held at CCNY’s gymnasium, 137th St. and Convent Ave., Harlem, on Dec. 28, 1991. Combs had heavily promoted the event on local radio and television.

Billed as an AIDS charity event, the contest featured celebrities, including boxer Mike Tyson and major rap stars. It drew an estimated 5,000 fans to a facility that held 2,730.

Those who were unable to get in rushed the doors of the basement gym in a surge that trapped dozens of people. Nine young people were trampled or crushed to death and 29 others were injured.

A mayoral report issued three weeks later blamed police, college officials, student organizers and Combs.

Combs testified that he was caught in the crush himself for a time. “I can’t explain in words the hysteria that was going on,” he said. “Everybody was trying to get out of the way of the stampede.”

Peter De Filippis, a plaintiff’s attorney, said the event was poorly planned by the college and Combs, who in the years since has become a big-name performer as well as one of the record industry’s hottest producers. “There was ample time to suspend the event, to shut it down to prevent a tragedy,” De Filippis said. “That decision was not made.”

Combs is not a defendant in this trial, but lawyers said the case could affect other lawsuits pending against him.

Yesterday’s testimony forced the hip hop honcho to delay plans to attend last night’s Academy Awards ceremonies after a judge threatened to jail him for contempt if he didn’t show up in court.