Rap artist and promoter Sean “Puffy” Combs was not well known on December 28, 1991. He was about to make his first headlines for his part in a disaster.
Combs had rented out the gym at the City University of New York – City College for what was advertised as a celebrity basketball game. In reality it was a more of a rap concert. The Nat Holman Gymnasium at City College was located at West 138th Street and Convent Avenue and had a capacity if 2,730 people. Unfortunately, Combs’ team over sold the event and there were as many as 5,000 people trying to get in.
Combs had done some serious advertising for the event including radio ads. It was known that security would be needed. The Police Department had 66 officers assigned to the detail. City College provided 30 private security officers, and the promoters hired 20 security workers.
When the crowd at the door started to become unruly, Combs’ security people decided to close the doors for the gym. It was a fatal mistake. The doors, which opened outwards as required by fire code, became a choke point for the crowd surging to get in. People were crushed against the doors until they finally broke and then people were trampled as the crowd rushed the event. Police and security were unable to stop the sudden violence of the crowd. Before order was restored, 9 people were dead and dozens were injured.
There were immediate headlines and accusations of responsibility. Although no criminal charges were filed, there were several civil suits that did not go well for City College or Combs’ team. As one judge said, “It does not take an Einstein to know that young people attending a rap concert camouflaged as a ‘celebrity basketball game,’ who have paid as much as $20 a ticket, would not be very happy and easy to control if they were unable to gain admission to the event because it was oversold”. Courts found the CUNY college 50 percent responsible and Combs 50 percent responsible. A judge said Combs’ security people were responsible for the fatal mistake of closing the stairwell door to the gym.
By the time these civil suits started being settled in the late 1990s, Combs was an international star. Final settlements were never made public, but Combs’ team undoubtedly paid millions in damages. Combs has publicly regretted the event and sympathized with the victims. In 1998 he stated, “City College is something I deal with every day of my life. But the things that I deal with can in no way measure up to the pain that the families deal with. I just pray for the families and pray for the children who lost their lives every day.”