Fire in a Crowded Theater: A Descriptive Investigation of the Emergence of Panic

March 1988 (VOL. 6, NO. 1)

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More than 160 people were killed in a fire in the Beverly Hills Supper Club near Cincinnati, Ohio in 1977, an incident that appeared to be a classic case of panic involving a breakdown of social order and ruthless competition for exits. This paper analyzes transcripts of police interviews with club patrons to describe flight from the show room in which most of the deaths occurred. The descriptive analysis reveals that escape from the building was initially orderly and non-competitive; however, when escape became urgent, competition for the remaining exit possibilities developed. Even then the behavior did not appear to be in total disregard of social order; social norms and structural ties continued to constrain behavior.