by Céilí Doyle / Staff writer, Matt Sledge / Staff writer and Angelica Perez / Staff writer, Houston Landing
July 28, 2023
They looked like rag dolls, Reece Wheeler thought.
One by one, the Astroworld Festival coordinator watched from the command center as unconscious Travis Scott fans’ were crowd-surfed out of the mosh pit and dumped into the sea of bodies raging before one of the biggest rappers in the last decade performed.
The concert hadn’t even begun.
Wheeler texted Shawna Boardman — the festival’s exterior manager of security, a minute before Scott took the stage:
“There’s panic in people’s eyes,” he wrote. “This could get worse quickly.”
“Yes,” Boardman replied.
Wheeler watched in horror over the next hour as no one stopped the concert. Wheeler texted her again:
“I would pull the plug but that’s just me,” he wrote. “I know they’ll try to fight through but I would want it on the record that I didn’t advise this to continue. Someone’s going to end up dead.”
The messages were among thousands of pieces of evidence gathered by the Houston Police Department during its investigation of the Travis Scott Astroworld festival, where 10 fans died and hundreds of others were injured on Nov. 5, 2021. The police department released its complete investigative report Friday.
The 1,266-page document comes on the heels of Scott’s fourth studio album release: “Utopia.”
The police report details for the first time how Scott perceived what was happening mid-performance and what he told police. It contains police interviews with concert promoters, security personnel and other key witnesses that never have been made public before. And it shows, in vivid detail, how no one seemed to know how to stop the tragedy as it unfolded.
Scott had come under fire immediately after the tragedy for continuing to perform for 37 minutes after police and fire officials declared the situation a “mass casualty event.”
Houston police said concert promoter Live Nation had agreed to cut the show short at 9:38 p.m., but Friday’s report indicated Scott did not leave the stage until 10:13 p.m.
Police interviewed two witnesses who said they heard Scott being told in his earpiece that the concert had to end early because there were “bodies on the ground” and that three people had died. Scott told police he didn’t learn of the deaths until after the show, and investigators were unable to understand a recording of the messages relayed to Scott because of the poor quality of the audio.
Scott’s attorney, Kent Schaffer, and Live Nation’s attorney, Neal Manne, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
On June 29, a grand jury declined to indict Scott and five other individuals for their roles in the 2021 tragedy after a 19-month investigation. Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said the grand jury “found that no crime did occur, that no single individual was criminally responsible.”
The tragedy happened after Scott took the stage on the first night of the two-day festival. Victims were pinned against barriers after thousands squeezed together, investigators said at the June 29 media briefing.
A year after the tragedy, the Houston Chronicle reported no new regulations or standards regarding security, venues or event planning that could help prevent a similar fatal incident had been adopted by the city or Harris County.
The festival took place at NRG Park, which is county property managed by the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp. The complex, however, is within the jurisdiction of the Houston police and fire departments. A joint city-county task joint task force later was convened to clarify jurisdiction in cases with overlapping authority.
From the rapper’s perspective
Eleven minutes into the concert, the first chorus of someone shouting, “Stop the show,” began.
It would take another hour for the concert to end.
In an interview with Houston detectives, Scott said the first time he noticed something was wrong was when he was on an elevated platform for two or three songs and saw a fan waving at him.
At that point, the rapper told the crowd to back up and allow medical personnel into that section of the crowd, according to the interview with reporting officer M.L. Barrow.
“Make sure he good,” Scott shouted into the microphone at 9:26 p.m. — about 10 minutes after the first fan begged him to stop the show.
The rapper noticed an ambulance head toward the crowd and questioned what was going on.
“If everybody good, put a middle finger up in the sky,” he instructed the crowd.
From that moment on, Scott told police he was in a trance, focused on his performance.
According to the interview with Houston police, Scott was informed that the show had to end after surprise musical guest Drake took the stage. But no one told him it was an emergency.
“Normally if it was something drastic,” Scott told the police, “someone would have to come hit the button or pull the plug.”
Houston police also interviewed Drake. The Canadian rapper said he was whisked onto and off the stage for his performance. Distracted by the stage lights and concentrating on his footing after a recent knee surgery, he never noticed anything amiss.
Later that night, Drake met up with Scott. At that point, they didn’t yet know that something had happened at the show, Drake said. Only later, in a conversation with his manager, did he learn about the tragedy, said the performer, whose real name is Aubrey Drake Graham.
After Drake’s performance ended, Scott left the stage and headed toward his trailer, according to the report. A friend informed that someone was receiving CPR in the crowd, but at that point the rapper said he assumed they were only talking about one person.
Roughly 40 minutes later, Scott told police he heard maybe there were two people receiving medical treatment and thought to himself, “What is going on?”
By the time the rapper got home it was around 2 or 3 a.m., and Scott discovered that several of his fans had died.
‘Bodies on the ground’
The question of what Scott did or didn’t know while he was performing loomed over the Astroworld investigation. Two backstage workers gave versions of what Scott heard while he was onstage that directly contradicted the musician’s account.
As a monitor system engineer, Steve Hupkowizc played a key role in allowing band members to communicate while they were on the stage. Hupkowizc could hear the same communications that Scott did during the show, he said.
Scott was told “well before” Drake went on stage that the concert had turned deadly, Hupkowizc said. According to him, autotune operator Bilal “Bizzy” Joseph, a frequent Scott collaborator, gave Scott a grim message.
“We need to hurry up and get to the Drake part of the show … three people have died,” Joseph told Scott, according to Hupkowizc. Still, the show went on. Drake took the stage. There seemed to be little pressure from the production team to cut off the music, Hupkowizc said.
Hupkowizc’s version of events was corroborated by another backstage engineer, who heard a slightly different message from Joseph to Scott: “Hey, we need to wrap this up, we got like two bodies in the ground.”
A third person, monitor engineer Justin Hoffman, said he saw Joseph use a microphone to relay a message to Scott. Hoffman didn’t overhear the message, but asked Joseph what he said. Joseph replied that he told Travis that “people were hurt” and to stop the show after Drake was finished performing, according to the police report.
Joseph, in a separate interview, claimed he had been told to end the show after Drake’s performance, with no discussion of injured fans. Joseph claimed that he was so immersed in his work that he didn’t know about the chaos unfolding in the crowd, and he thought the cutoff was tied to a curfew.
Joseph only learned about what had happened in the crowd, he said, after the show came to an end.
‘Nobody wanted to tell Travis no’
One executive at a security company, Marty Wallgren of B3 Risk Solutions, told investigators that working with Travis Scott had been “painful.” The artist often encouraged people to “rage,” and he often saw an uptick in the number of people pulled into medical tents for help.
“Of all the shows and genres he has seen, he has never seen anything like the environment that Travis Scott creates,” detectives wrote in their report. Going into the show, he expected “mayhem.”
Wallgren said he expected the gate rushes that helped swell the size of the crowd — Scott’s promotional team seemed to encourage them — and he told the festival’s minimum-wage security guards not to put themselves in harm’s way to stop them.
Wallgren said he had a bad feeling about closing down one of the stages so that all of the concertgoers’ attention would be focused on Scott. However, “nobody wanted to tell Travis no, or that it was a bad idea to set up the festival with the stages like they were.” Travis appeared to have surrounded himself with “yes men,” Wallgren said, and it was difficult to convince him otherwise.
Representatives for Travis Scott seemed to shrug off Wallgren’s requests to shut down the show at 10 p.m., he told detectives. They told him that Drake still had three more songs.
Crane operator: ‘People are dying’
Gregory Hoffman told investigators he had never seen anything like the Astroworld Festival.
The main crane operator has been operating camera equipment for 35 years — everything from the Oscars to the Super Bowl — and was hired by production director Salvatore Livia to work the festival about a week before the show started.
Shortly after the concert began, Hoffman was located near the “front of the house” and watched security disappear from his area as the section was overrun with fans.
His crane was rendered inoperable within the first 15 to 20 minutes of the concert.
Hoffman watched as people came over the barricade near him to get closer to the show as others tried in vain to escape the “crush.”
The cameraman became desperate. He radioed other members of the production team for help because he was concerned the crane needed to be safeguarded. Otherwise, it could be a hazard to fans.
Another member of the camera crew, Joe McKenna, rushed to assist Hoffman.
McKenna told police that during Scott’s second song, someone pulled on the cables attached to the crane, and he had to run out to the barricade to tell fans to stop before they killed someone.
Paramedics arrived to perform CPR on two fans who were crushed in the onslaught of people rushing the barricade near the crane.
McKenna told police he overheard Hoffman radio the production trailer, “There are dead bodies underneath the crane, people are getting hurt. Shut it down.”
During the chaos, McKenna said he remembered another production team member near the crane say, “I don’t get paid enough for this, I am out of here.”
Hoffman confirmed he told the production team the crane was down and people were dying.
The production trailer consisted of the festival’s production director, Livia, assistant director, technical director and producers, which had to have included someone from Live Nation, Scott’s tour or Apple, Hoffman said.
Hoffman said that the director repeated what Hoffman had told him to the other producers in the trailer at 9:25 p.m.
It took another 48 minutes for the show to end.