Rap Producer Testifies on Fatal Stampede at City College [1998-03-24]
Today, Mr. Combs, also known as Puff Daddy, is at the top of rap, a multimillionaire impresario and Grammy Award-winning performer who runs one of urban music’s most popular labels, Bad Boy Entertainment. But yesterday, Mr. Combs was confronting his past, testifying about the deadly night at City College.
”City College is something I deal with every day of my life,” Mr. Combs said outside court yesterday. ”But the things that I deal with can in no way measure up to the pain that the families deal with. I just pray for the families and pray for the children who lost their lives every day.”
Mr. Combs appeared yesterday in the State Court of Claims in Manhattan. He is a witness in a lawsuit against City College that was filed on behalf of some of the victims of the stampede. This is the first state court case related to the stampede to go to trial.
Mr. Combs described the chaotic atmosphere of that deadly night in testimony that was reported by The Associated Press. He said that he ”observed an overwhelming amount of people outside” the gymnasium where the game was held, and that they were pressing to get in.
”The doors popped,” he said, adding, ”they tore the doors right off the hinges.” As the crowd poured into the lobby, ”the rush was too much and the stampede started down the stairs.”
Mr. Combs said he ”started seeing different young ladies getting squished.” He added, ”You could see panic on everybody’s face.”
Nine other civil suits are outstanding in the disaster, including one wrongful death and eight personal injury cases, lawyers said. Mr. Combs is named as a defendant in some cases.
Seven years ago, Mr. Combs, then 22, was the promoter of the Heavy D and Puff Daddy Celebrity Charity Basketball Game at City College’s Nat Holman Gymnasium. The game, promoted through fliers and radio spots, was intended to raise money for AIDS charities, and it featured several rap stars playing on teams.
On Dec. 28, 1991, a large crowd gathered outside the 2,730-seat gymnasium, forming a long line that stretched along 138th Street.
The crowd grew unruly, and someone decided to close the doors to the street. The fans surged forward, slamming into the outer doors, which broke under the pressure.
The crowd raced into the small lobby and down a short flight of stairs to the gym doors. But the doors to the gym, most of which were closed, only opened outward. Nine young fans were trampled or crushed to death and 29 were injured.
Investigations into the circumstances surrounding the stampede and the police response did not reach definitive conclusions, and no criminal charges were filed.
In the aftermath of the disaster, the people involved with running the event pointed fingers at one another. Questions were raised about how City College could have approved the event, whether the promoters were adequately prepared, and whether the Police Department moved quickly enough to stop the disturbance.
The Police Department had 66 officers stationed outside the gym that night. City College provided 30 private security officers, and the promoters hired 20 security workers.
Mr. Combs’s lawyers have argued he was not responsible for security, which they say was left to the college. Mark Goidell, one of Mr. Combs’s lawyers, argued that the plans were adequate.
”I don’t think an army could have stopped the sudden onslaught by a surge of people,” Mr. Goidell said. ”There was an enormous police presence outside, and there was a pretty large security contingent inside. They were simply overwhelmed by the surge of people crashing the doors.”
Kenneth Meiselas, Mr. Combs’s longtime business lawyer, said that Mr. Combs hired extra security for the event even though security was not his responsibility. ”He was always told by the university that they were in charge of security and they would have to follow the direction and control of their security,” Mr. Meiselas said.
But lawyers for people injured in the stampede have argued that Mr. Combs bears part of the responsibility for the disaster. ”There was a failure of responsibility across the board,” said Peter De Filippis, a lawyer for a young woman who was injured at the game and is a plaintiff in the lawsuit that is now being tried. ”Everyone involved left security up to someone else. They never decided who would be in charge of security.”
Mr. De Filippis said problems began when someone decided to shut the doors without preparing for the crowd’s reaction. He said that people who already had tickets believed they were being shut out and surged forward. ”I think the promoter is initially responsible for all aspects of the event,” Mr. De Filippis said. ”It was his responsibility to make sure there was adequate security.”