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Puffy Recalls Deadly Benefit – Suit over tragedy at City College [1998-03-24]

Associated Press [New York Newsday]
Long before Sean (Puff Daddy) Combs became one of the music industry’s biggest stars – before the Grammys, the videos on MTV and the magazine covers – he promoted a 1991 celebrity charity basketball game in which nine people died. Yesterday, Combs testified in court for the first time about the stampede at the City College campus, recalling how hundreds stormed the doors, crushing people into a stairway that led to the gym.

“We were pleading with people to move back,” Combs said. “It’s almost hard to explain in words, the hysteria . . . You could see panic on everybody’s face.”

The rapper, producer and CEO of Bad Boy Entertainment, testified as part of a lawsuit filed against the college and the state by the family of one of those killed and seven others who were injured.

But the plaintiffs also allege that Combs and other organizers “oversold the event, failed to provide adequate security and failed to make provisions to control the overcrowded situation that developed,” said attorney Peter De Filippis.

He said it will be up to Court of Claims Judge Louis Benza to determine the liability of the college, Combs or others. Then damages will be determined.

The families of the eight others killed have reached out-of-court settlements.

Combs and others involved in the tragedy at the Harlem campus on Dec. 28, 1991, also are named in a lawsuit filed in State Supreme Court in Manhattan. That case is still about a year away.

Combs testified Monday that he had dealt exclusively with CCNY’s Evening Student Government president in booking the gymnasium, and he understood that the college would be in charge of security.

Besides guards provided by the college, Combs hired 20 guards from a company that had worked at movie shoots for Spike Lee and Eddie Murphy. They were hired for crowd control, as well as to protect the celebrity rappers in the game, Combs said.

About 1,400 tickets were sold in advance and 500 were sold the night of the event, Combs testified. Former Deputy Mayor Milton Mollen said in a 1992 report that the gym capacity was 2,730, but twice as many people may have tried to get in.

Combs said fans were separated into two orderly lines, one for those with tickets, the other for those buying tickets. But as more people arrived, things began to spin out of control.

Those without tickets jumped in front of those with tickets and as the situation grew more chaotic, guards closed the glass doors to the lobby.

“I just observed an overwhelming amount of people outside,” Combs said. He said as the crowd continued to surge, he saw people pressed against the glass, unable to move. Combs said he spoke to city Police Department brass at the scene and asked them to use their bullhorns to get people outside to move back.

Suddenly, “the doors popped . . . they tore the doors right off the hinges,” and the crowd rushed into the lobby, Combs said, adding, “the rush was too much and a stampede started down the stairs.”

At the bottom, however, only one door was open. Other doors could not be opened because of the crush. He made it through the doorway to the gym and when he looked back, he “started seeing different young ladies getting squished . . . you could see panic on everybody’s face.”

When it was over, nine people were dead and 29 injured.

Outside court, Combs said the tragedy is “something that I deal with every day of my life. But the things I deal with can no way measure up to the pain that the families deal with and I just pray for the families and I pray for the children that lost their lives.”