“I thought my boyfriend had died, and they had taken his body away”

Survivors of Halloween party tragedy recall a night of chaos at Madrid Arena

There was little to be heard from the hundreds of young men and women trapped in the tangled pile of bodies stacked up more than two meters high in the locked exits at Madrid Arena in the early hours of November 1. So say survivors of the human stampede at the Halloween DJ session, which left four dead. Many were unconscious, while others were focusing what little energy they had left on trying to free an arm or a leg in the hope that somebody would pull them out.

María C, an 18-year-old economics student, spent 30 minutes trapped under a mountain of bodies. “It felt like an eternity. All I can remember is the weight of the people lying on top of me. Underneath me a girl was screaming, and I remember telling her to calm down, that we would all get out.”

María and her boyfriend had been caught up in the stampede when the crowd panicked after a firework was thrown into the crowd. They had been in the main dance area, but had decided to leave — “It was so crowded that you couldn’t move, let alone dance...” — and were heading for the exit when hundreds of people suddenly came charging up behind them. “We could see that there was no way out, but people just kept coming. Anybody who fell or got in the way was trampled on. I fell, and people fell on top of me,” she says.

Even before the panic, many people, like María and her boyfriend, were trying to get out. The capacity for the venue is 10,300, but there may well have been up to 18,000 people there that night. Just before 3am large numbers of people started making their way to the main area in front of where DJ Steve Aoki was due to begin his set. Those who left the area, like María, soon came up against another group of youngsters who, after drinking heavily outside in the parking lot, had made their way into Madrid Arena via an emergency exit rather than through the main entrance, and were determined to get onto the dance floor.

They had been sent there by security staff at the main entrance. Miguel Ángel Flores, the owner of Diviertt, the company that organized the event, told the judge investigating the tragedy that those coming into the event were “incredibly drunk.” And when four girls slipped on the drink and vomit that by now had covered the floor, they were suddenly stuck in what the police have called a “rat trap.” Katia Esteban, Rocío Oña, Cristina Arce, and Belén Langdon died from suffocation. A fifth young woman is still in hospital fighting for her life after the oxygen to her brain was cut off for 10 minutes.

Underneath me a girl was screaming, and I remember telling her to calm down"

Flores had many contacts at Madrid City Hall, and had an exclusive contract to stage events at Madrid Arena, owned by the municipality, for 2012-2013.

Flores now faces possible homicide charges for the deaths of the four young women, along with those related to injuries sustained by dozens of other people at the event, as well as for alleged safety breaches.

Four people so far face charges, and at least another five could do so. The only politician to have lost his job is Pedro Calvo, the head of Madrid City Hall’s finance department, which is responsible for the running of Madrid Arena.

Witnesses say that large numbers of revelers had been drinking unchecked outside the arena for several hours prior to the tragedy. Similarly, no police officers were on hand to supervise the large numbers of people waiting to get into the event, many of whom, as the organizers have admitted, were already very drunk.

On Friday, a panel of judges began counting the eight boxes where security staff put ticket stubs. In the first four boxes they found more than 9,000 stubs. If the other four boxes produce a similar amount, that means that up to 18,000 people were sold tickets.

Why did police fail to break up the open-air party going on outside Madrid Arena, which contravenes Madrid ordnances? Why were so many tickets sold over the legal permitted number? Two private firms were responsible for security that night -- in total, some 120 men and women. The 40 guards working for Seguriber had been hired directly by Madrid City Hall, while a further 70 had been subcontracted from a company called Kontrol 34, most of them with experience of working in nightclubs. Their job was to manage security inside Madrid Arena. Carlos Manzanares, a member of Kontrol 34’s board of directors, told the magistrate overseeing the investigation that he had been told by Seguriber that the job of his employees was simply to check the age of those entering, and to direct them to designated areas in the venue.

As the investigation continues, it is becoming clear that neither the police nor the security companies were doing their job that night. Rafael Pastor, a former member of Congress for the Popular Party, and now director of security at Seguriber, has already admitted as much. Questioned by police in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, he said that the job of his employees was to prevent dangerous objects being taken in, and to prevent illegal drinking inside or outside the venue.

Eventually I saw him, walking around barefoot. We hugged each other, saying nothing"

Dozens of witnesses have told the police that they entered the venue without being searched or asked to prove their age. Sara, aged 17, told the police that 18 out of the group she was with were underage, and that none of them were asked to show their identity cards. Other witnesses say that fireworks were constantly being let off on the dance floor and other areas in the venue, and that there were empty bottles of alcohol lying around.

Cristina Cifuentes, the government’s delegate in Madrid, said last week that the National Police force had no jurisdiction to control the crowds at Madrid Arena. Cifuentes said that she sent a document to Madrid Mayor Ana Botella clarifying the police’s role that night, which was to check the organizer’s permits to ensure they were in order and verify that the doors and entrances at the venue were in proper order.

“The delegation sent the document to the Madrid mayor’s office with the sole purpose of contributing to the inquiry that is being undertaken by an investigative committee. We want the committee to have a clear picture of what happened,” she said. Meanwhile, the opposition Socialists on the committee have demanded that both Cifuentes and Botella be called to testify for the panel.

María says that in the days that followed she suffered from headaches and from painful bruising all over her body. Aaron, 22, says that he spent 10 minutes trapped under a mass of humanity. “It was terrible, I couldn’t move. My girlfriend was trying to get me out, but everybody was jammed together. She was crying. Finally, they broke open one of the doors and we were able to pick ourselves up and get out into the open.”

Once María had managed to free herself, she began looking for her boyfriend, who was trapped further back in the tunnel. She had been pushed forward and separated from him by the surge of people trying to get out, while he had slipped and fallen, soon to be trampled on and squashed as others fell over him. But security guards refused to allow her back in. Eventually she managed to get back to the dance floor, which by then had been cleared, but there was no sign of him.

“I thought that he had died, and that they had taken his body away,” she says. Among the shoes lying in the exit tunnel she recognized her boyfriend’s. “I picked them up, and went looking for him again on the dance floor. Eventually I saw him, walking around barefoot. We hugged each other, saying nothing. Later he told me that he thought I had been killed.”

Little has been said of the four young women who died that night. But one survivor says that her friend Katia Esteban, who was trapped several bodies below her, remembers her saying: “Say goodbye to my father; tell him that I love him a lot.”

CCTV footage shows how security staff contributed to tragedy

J. A. H., Madrid

Closed-circuit television camera footage from Madrid Arena on the night of October 31-November 1 shows that security staff failed to control the number of people entering the venue, and that the main dance area inside was overcrowded.

The recordings are currently being analyzed by officers from the National Police force, who are trying to build up a picture of the events leading to the tragedy. At 2.30am the organizers of the event instructed private security company Kontrol 34 to allow people arriving late at the venue to enter via two emergency exits.

This decision saw large numbers of people flood into the venue just at the moment when a similar amount were trying to leave via the same route.

The organizers of the event had been told that the maximum number of people permitted in Madrid Arena that night was 10,600, but that they would have to be equally divided among the venue’s three floors. Witnesses say that this was not the case, and that most people were down on the level where the main dance floor was. CCTV cameras show that while people were being allowed into the venue through emergency exits, inside there were large numbers of people on the stairwells between the three floors.

Sometime between 2.30am and 3am, some members of the security staff tried to stop people coming down the staircase that leads onto the main dance floor, which was already packed. At the same time, security staff outside were sending new arrivals into the first and ground floors, rather than directing them to the less-crowded upper area.

The CCTV footage shows that there were no security guards present when the stampede began, and those trying to leave the venue came up against large numbers of revelers trying to get inside. It took security staff several minutes to arrive on the scene, when, with the help of people attending the event, they began trying to pull out those who had become trapped.

But at no time during the night, at least according to the CCTV footage, is there any evidence to support the claim made by the organizers of the event that young people who had been drinking outside in the car park attempted to force their way into the venue through side entrances.

Instead, the footage shows that those turning up to enter went through two checkpoints. At the second, their tickets were inspected. Up to 2.30am, those entering were directed to the second floor. From that point, security staff closed this entrance, and sent hundreds of people toward the two emergency exits. One of these led straight into the most crowded area of the venue.

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