Fire chief denied access to Astroworld venue twice before event, fire fighter association says

Fire chief was given a map instead

ByTravis Caldwell, Jennifer Henderson, Chloe Melas, Gregory Lemos and Rosa Flores, CNNWire
Thursday, November 11, 2021
New questions into Astroworld safety plans before deadly crowd surge
A 9-year-old boy and 22-year-old college student remain in critical condition following the deadly crowd surge at Houston's Astroworld music festival.

HOUSTON -- The president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighter Association said Thursday the district fire chief whose station was closest to NRG Park stopped by the venue the morning of November 5 but was denied access twice, CNN reported.

According to Patrick "Marty" Lancton, the district fire chief of Station 21 stopped by to walk through the venue to get a lay of the land ahead of Friday night's concert, something he said is "normal."

"As with any big, large-scale event he took a ride over and said 'hey, let's check everything out,'" Lancton said. "In the city of Houston, a district fire chief is usually over three or four stations. When a response is required in his area, he is the first to respond. He would be the one taking command if something happened and determine what resources are needed."

According to Lancton, the district fire chief was denied access first by security. He requested to speak with the head of security who also denied the district chief access. Lancton said the district fire chief was given a map of the venue instead.

SEE ALSO | Astroworld 2021: Security staffing at Travis Scott show unclear, Houston police chief says

CNN has reached out several times to Contemporary Services Corporation, who handled security for the event, and has not heard back.

Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña backed up the claims that the district chief was not let in.

But Peña went a step further, saying he'd like to see his teams be a part of the planning before the day of the event.

"I do need to have my people there in the planning, in the contingency planning," Peña said. "It's important for us to have a comprehensive plan that everyone understands."

Lancton said that the district fire chief was among some of the first Houston Fire Department personnel on the scene after four firefighters stationed inside the Orange Parking Lot became increasingly worried about the situation unfolding inside the venue

The lack of professional emergency personnel at Astroworld was "absolutely a problem," Lancton said.

"That is absolutely a problem in my opinion," Lancton said on CNN's "New Day." "What that really means is that whoever put the event on hired a third party medical company ... to handle any emergencies that are happening on the inside."

Lancton said the Houston Fire Department "had no command and controlled presence on this inside of the venue," but were nearby "in a support role."

RELATED | Chicago student who attended Astroworld describes chaos after Travis Scott concert turned deadly

Lancton said the firefighters on-scene asked the hired emergency personnel if they had radios and were given a list of cell phone numbers. He said the fact the logistical emergency strategy relied on cell phones, not radios, was problematic because "seconds matter, communication matters."

"I don't know that cell phones are very reliable when you have fifty or sixty thousand people, especially when you have people that are dying," he said.

He said firefighters were primarily monitoring Houston Police Department radio traffic and noticed a growing tension from authorities on the ground. After not hearing any response over the radio to stated medical emergencies, the HFD personnel on standby chose to self-initiate a response.

"They took it upon themselves, when they started to hear radio traffic, and self-initiated a Houston Fire Department response and upgraded it to a mass casualty incident," he said.

Travis Scott's attorney, Attorney Edwin F. McPherson, released a statement Wednesday night blasting Houston city officials over the "finger-pointing," "inconsistent messages," and backtracking of statements, CNN previously reported.

Brothers who attended Astroworld Festival say the event 'unraveled in chaos'

Brothers Jonathan and Bryan Espinoza say they witnessed "chaos" at the Astroworld Festival from the moment they entered the venue.

Eight people died and dozens were injured in a crowd surge at the music festival in Houston on Friday night. "While we're walking to get our ticket scanned in, fans immediately bust down a fence," Jonathan told CNN's John Berman on Thursday.

"You have cops trying to stop them, but I mean, there's about 50 people that just break the fence down (and) immediately start running."

"When you start off poorly, I don't get how you would expect to finish with success," said Jonathan. The event "unraveled in chaos" from the moment he and his brother arrived, he said.

During a Saturday press briefing, Peña said the entrances and exits to the concert were not a problem. Getting "in and out of that venue, that was not an issue," said Peña.

SEE ALSO | Chicago-based concert security company owner involved in Astroworld concert

Jonathan's brother, Bryan, said he's had trouble sleeping since Friday's tragic events unfolded.

"I saw people screaming in front of my face, just trying to fight for their lives, basically. Everyone's life was in danger and I just saw people passed out, bodies on the floor, just a lot of stuff you don't see on a daily basis," said Bryan.

"At one point I thought I wasn't going to make it."

Attorney Rick Ramos, who represents the brothers and several other festival attendees, said he is filing a class action lawsuit against festival organizer and headliner Travis Scott.

"Mr. Scott, dictated the pace of the concert to the crowd," said Ramos.

At least 58 lawsuits filed over Astroworld tragedy

As investigators and attendees seek to know more about what caused the deadly crowd crush, a bevy of lawsuits are being filed in civil court on behalf of those at the show.

At least 58 civil lawsuits have been filed in Harris County District Court in connection to the disaster as of Wednesday, asking city officials, concert organizers and performers how the concert was ultimately allowed to continue as people were dying in the melee.

Houston Police Chief Troy Finner said at a news conference Wednesday that the "ultimate authority to end a show (was) with production and the entertainer, and that should be through communication with public safety officials."

"We don't hold the plug," he said.

Authorities have said first responders began to receive word of injuries in the crowd around 9:30 p.m. and the show continued for another 40 minutes.

Finner claims their investigation has revealed police personnel told the production team in charge of the performance that CPR was underway on at least one individual and to stop the show. Finner did not specify who the production team is or the timing of the notifications.

Questions have also been raised regarding the actions of Live Nation, the show's promoter and organizer, as well as Scott, who has maintained he did not know what was happening in the crowd during his set.

"If the lights would have been turned on -- (if) the promoter or the artist called for that -- it would have chilled the crowd, and who knows? Who knows what the outcome would have been? But everybody in that venue, starting from the artist on down, has a responsibility for public safety," Peña told CNN on Monday.

RELATED | Naperville best friends among 8 killed at Travis Scott's Astroworld music festival; vigils planned

Yet representatives of Scott are disputing characterizations made by city officials of his responsibility in the surge.

Edwin F. McPherson, an attorney for Scott, released a statement Wednesday blasting Houston city officials over the "finger-pointing," "inconsistent messages," and backtracking of statements.

In a 56-page operations plan obtained by CNN this week, a clear chain of command in case of an incident is laid out, identifying the role of the executive producer as well as the festival director as the only individuals with the authority to stop the concert. The PDF obtained by CNN is marked Version: 0.1, and it is unclear whether it was the final version of the plan and when it was drafted.

"It was reported that the Operations Plan designated that only the festival director and executive producers have authority to stop the show, neither of which is part of Travis's crew," McPherson said in the statement.

McPherson also noted Finner's comments on Saturday that authorities had concerns over the show stopping early due to potential rioting from concertgoers.

Former Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who was introduced to Scott by a mutual friend, told CNN's Erin Burnett that Scott is "absolutely devastated" at what happened at the festival.

"His heart is bleeding for his fans," she said.

Speaking from Houston, Rawlings-Blake said that she spent over four hours with Scott on Wednesday and is working with him to ensure that they are speaking with city administration and the promoters.

"We're doing everything that he can do in his power to make sure that no fan ever loses their life at another concert," she said.

"He is angry. He is upset that this happened," she said, adding, "I think the finger-pointing is just -- It is unproductive. He at his heart wants to reach out to the families. He also wants to reach out to make sure that something like this never happens again."

Investigation will 'take weeks, possibly months'

Finner said at Wednesday's news conference that it was too early to say for sure that charges would be filed over the disaster, but said investigators were "not going to leave any stones unturned."

The investigation into the crowd crush will "take weeks, possibly months," he said.

The chief clarified earlier reports and said there was no evidence a security guard at the festival had received a drug-laced injection, but rather was struck in the head and knocked unconscious.

SEE ALSO | Travis Scott's concerts known for chaos before deadly Astroworld crowd surge

And despite Finner saying Wednesday that an independent investigation is unwarranted, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo may direct a potential third party to do so.

"What happened at Astroworld this weekend was a horrific tragedy, and the families of victims deserve answers. There may well be criminal liability, and that is why we continue to fully support the Houston Police Department's criminal investigation," said Rafael Lemaitre, communications director for Hidalgo.

"At the same time, Harris County continues its process of identifying a separate independent, third party to look into any operational or administrative steps -- beyond anything criminal -- that could have been taken to prevent this from happening."

Two remain in critical condition

Of the hundreds of people who were treated on-scene following Friday's crowd surge, at least two who were transported to a hospital remain in critical condition Wednesday, Peña told CNN.

Twenty-two-year-old Bharti Shahani attended the concert with her cousin and her younger sister, according to cousin Mohit Bellani. After suffering several injuries, Shahani is on a ventilator in critical condition, family attorney James Lassiter said in a statement.

Shahani is a student at Texas A&M University studying electronic systems engineering technology, a university spokesperson confirmed to CNN.

RELATED | Travis Scott attended afterparty following Astroworld Festival, sources say

A 9-year-old child was also seriously injured at the festival, his family said, and is in a medically induced coma.

Survivors of the surge describe scenes where many attendees were pressed together and at times unable to stay upright.

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