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"Thousand of people gathering, a narrow passageway, wet metal surfaces, many stairways and a lack of controls. Alarm bells should be ringing."
On duty, one of my most significant worries was crowds. Thus, a cold shudder ran through me as I read that 45 men and boys died in a crush. This time the scene was Mount Meron in northern Israel, as tens of thousands of worshippers gathered at a Rabbi's tomb.
Any Hong Kong police officer would recognise the elements of a disaster coming together. Thousand of people gathering, a narrow passageway, wet metal surfaces, many stairways and a lack of coordinated controls. Alarm bells should be ringing.
Decades ago, the Hong Kong Police learnt their lesson the hard way. On January 1st 1993, after midnight, a crowd of New Year's Eve revellers emptied out of the bars in Lan Kwai Fong. Some 20,000 people began to descend the small, sloped streets and alleys.
Then someone slipped. Others began to fall. Few could keep upright on pavements and a road surface slick with crazy foam, spilt beer, and champagne—a crush of bodies cascaded downhill to leave a pile of people six feet high. Sixty-three people, most under 20, were injured, with 21 dead due to crushing and asphyxiation.
The police and other emergency services, stunned and initially overwhelmed, then swung into action. Cue days and weeks of bitter recriminations, with blame aplenty heaped on the police.
An inquiry chaired by Justice Kemal Bokhary identified many factors that contributed to the disaster. He then made recommendations that empowered the police to act.
In Israel, the police asserted they had no authority at a religious site such as Mount Merton. The sensitivities of the site limited their ability to act. While in Hong Kong, the police faced different challenges. Everyone knew that celebrations like New Year need managing, especially when large crowds gathered. Yet, pressures existed on the police not to be party poopers by imposing controls restricting access to bars and clubs.
Measures such as one-way flows and limiting access drew criticism from business owners. The media, always up for a bit of police-bashing, joined in with diatribes about over-zealous policing. Yet, if Lan Kwai Fong proved anything, it's that a disaster can strike in seconds. And the only way to prevent deaths and injuries is planning, controls and some tough-love policing.
Henceforth, based on Bokhary's findings, a risk-management system allowed Hong Kong to avoid a repeat. Although I have to say, the public has short memories. I faced frequent questions about why we controlled numbers and batched groups entering Che Kung Temple.
Then came moans that the police could move around in designated free-access corridors while the hemmed-in public is behind barriers. This arrangement, recommended by Bokhary, allows officers to move about for control purposes. Besides, these corridors also act as escape and extraction routes for the sick and injured. Unfortunately, impatient and grumpy citizens don't see the threat until it's too late.
Over the past decades, the risk assessment systems grew in sophistication. Crowd psychology, crowd type, geography, area layouts, signs and modelling of crowd flow all came into play. Based on these criteria, the police now come well-armed to argue the case for controls. And a range of options are available; tidal flows, batching movement, one-way systems, escape routes and constant communication with the attendees.
The risk management process aims to achieve several things. These include:
Moreover, police officers and others dealing with crowds must see the clues and cues in the behaviour of different types of gatherings. For example, events with families tend to be calmer. But if you spot the families leaving, with young men left behind, the risk of trouble escalates. Add alcohol to that equation, and thing can get silly.
Unfortunately, the lessons of Lan Kwai Fong didn't reach Shanghai. The 2015 New Year disaster there had all the usual hallmarks. Thousands of people trying to get onto a narrow stairway leading to an elevated viewing platform at Chen Yi Square. As the countdown event at the far end of the square reached its climax, people surged onto the stairway and fell. The result was 36 killed and 47 injured. Most of the dead were females aged 12 to 36.
Looking around at potential risks in Hong Kong, the South Stand at the Rugby Sevens caused me some anxious moments. The heady mix of drunk people crammed on a sloping structure has the potential for a surge. Measures that control the numbers allowed on the stand have gone some way to reducing that risk.
Besides, the banning of adolescents, who tend to get over-excited and aggressive, proved beneficial. Sitting in the side-stands, a different dynamic plays out. I observed that the older, more mature spectators self-policed the kids with the occasional 'quiet word'. This usually calmed any silliness by teenagers.
It always struck me that Wong Tai Sin Temple at Chinese New Year, as the worshippers charged in, to place burning joss sticks, is an accident waiting to happen. With the slow moving elderly mixed in with more boisterous elements, the risk is there. Slowing the movement, and then providing spillover areas, eased the hazards without unduly impacting the atmosphere of this iconic event.
It's hard not to acknowledge that the Lan Kwai Fong stampede was avoidable. The April 1989 UK Hillsborough disaster should have alerted police forces around the world that they needed to up their game.
Fortunately, these days Hong Kong does a remarkable job managing crowds. In truth, there was nothing particularly groundbreaking about the methods developed in Hong Kong. Except to say, the gained experience and the embedding of a culture that mitigates risks is commendable.
Yet, we can't rest on laurels as complacency will catch us out. Thus, robust risk assessments and constant vigilance remain crucial. Finally, we learnt that the critics of police actions need addressing with reminders of what can happen.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.