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Tuesday, June 4, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Mosh pits: It's not all fun, music

Seattle Times Eastside bureau

Scott Stone doesn't remember the night he fell from the hands of a mosh-pit throng at a Seattle rock concert, but he bears its mark: a crescent-shaped scar that starts at his temple and disappears in his buzz-cut brown hair.

Stone had gone to see an all-ages show by the California band Rage Against the Machine. Leaving his seat to join the fans packed in front of the stage, the then 14-year-old suddenly found himself hoisted up in the arms of strangers, being passed back, over the heads of other concertgoers, until there was no one left to catch him. His fall to Mercer Arena's cement floor left him with permanent brain damage.

Stone's parents reached an out-of-court settlement last month with the band, city, concert promoter and security company contracted for the September 1996 event. The city's share of the settlement, covered under the security company's insurance policy, was $400,000, according to an assistant city attorney. The Stones, who signed nondisclosure agreements with the other parties, say they are satisfied with the settlement and want to move on with their lives.

But they are angry at what they characterize as an out-of-control concert industry with a propensity for putting profits over people. The Bothell family agreed to be interviewed because they say they want their experience to be a warning to other parents.

"We don't want this to happen to any other kid," said Scott's mother, Cathy Stone.

"But it will — it's a business," his father, Randy Stone, said.

Most concerts do not result in injuries and deaths. But the increasing frequency of serious injuries — including broken bones, brain damage and paralysis — is shining a spotlight on what some critics see as fun and freedom pushed to irresponsible limits.

The injuries have prompted a handful of U.S. cities and some bands to ban crowd surfing and stage diving, but there are no national standards for concert safety, and no one has exact numbers on how many people are injured in mosh pits every year. One survey cites at least 10 deaths and more than 1,000 injuries resulting from just 15 U.S. concerts last year.

In the Seattle area, as in most other cities, bands and promoters decide whether to allow crowd surfing and stage diving. At a Marilyn Manson concert at Mercer Arena in March last year, signs were posted throughout the venue, prohibiting crowd surfing and stage diving. At the Tacoma Dome, stage diving is discouraged and signs are often posted warning of the dangers, said the venue's director, Mike Combs.

However, at the concert where Stone and 30 others were injured, the security company was instructed to "let the crowd take care of themselves," according to the Stones' attorney, Ron Webb, referring to a security official's testimony in a deposition. Webb sees the Stone settlement as a strong message to concert organizers of their responsibility to provide a safe environment.

"The concert industry is now on notice that these kinds of actions are unreasonably dangerous," Webb said, referring to crowd surfing and stage diving. He said concert organizers "have a duty to warn of danger and take reasonable measures to correct that danger."

The bands themselves often set the mood; while one may invite concertgoers to leap into the crowd from the stage, another will remind people to be safe and look out for their neighbor, Combs said.

Paul Wertheimer, a nationally recognized concert-safety expert, says the Stones' settlement is symbolically important because it happened here, in the birthplace of grunge — arguably the most important rock movement since the punk explosion of the late '70s. It was here that people learned to ride atop surging crowds and swan dive from stages long before MTV videos and TV commercials began marketing grunge's crowd-surfing, stage-diving cool.

With the case of Scott Stone — who suffered Seattle's most serious concert injury to date, according to Wertheimer — the debate that has pitted music and hipness against safety concerns and a growing roster of injured "has come home to roost."

Life transformed

Before his injury, Scott Stone was the kind of kid who'd have his family in tears with his nightly dinner-table antics. Afterward, his personality changed from a gregarious teen into a moody, angry and often-frustrated young man, his parents said.

Now 20, he isn't able to drive or move out of his parents' home in Bothell. He graduated from Bothell High School last year and works at a local sandwich shop. He hopes to attend community college but knows he may not be able to handle the courses because his short-term-memory problems make retaining information especially difficult.

"Maybe he won't be able to do college, and maybe he won't get a fair shake at a good job," said Randy Stone, as he sat at the head of the family's dining-room table recently, flanked by his wife and son. "But I don't think the medical bills or the doctors will ever totally go away." It's likely too that Scott's depression and sleeping problems, which are common with his kind of brain injury, will continue for the rest of his life, his father said.

Scott, who has been featured in stories for the cable-TV music channel VH1, ABC's television newsmagazine "20/20" and in USA Today, Teen People and other publications, says he still goes to concerts. "I like the energy from the crowd and being with a bunch of people who are involved and into the music," he said.

The 1996 concert was the first one he attended without his father. His parents say they trusted their son would be safe at an all-ages show at a city-run venue. "It just didn't seem to be something to be concerned with," said Randy Stone.

No one knows — and Scott does not remember — whether the boy purposefully thrust himself into the arms of the crowd or was forced up by older youths who, according to witnesses, "were throwing smaller kids and girls up onto the crowd, forcing them to crowd surf against their will," said Webb, the family's attorney. A couple of older youths who knew Scott from school saw him fall and fought through the crowd to drag him out, Webb said. "If it wasn't for them, he probably would've died."

But people who crowd surf and stage dive have to assume some of the risk, said assistant city attorney Sean Sheehan, who worked on the Stone case.

"It was the city's position that Scott Stone attended concerts before, he crowd surfed before, he'd been warned not to do it by his father and he chose to do it repeatedly — so we believe Mr. Stone assumed the risk when he chose to crowd surf," Sheehan said. "In my judgment, 14-year-olds are perfectly capable of understanding 'What goes up must come down.' "

The city, which owns Mercer Arena, "complies with the normal standards within the venue industry," Sheehan said.

Sheehan declined to say whether new safety procedures are being considered for city-run facilities. Officials with Monqui and Starplex, the concert's promoter and security company respectively, did not respond to requests for interviews. Attorneys representing Rage Against the Machine could not be reached.

Survey of concert injuries

Wertheimer, who has served as an expert witness in concert-related death and injury lawsuits around the world, compiles an annual survey of injuries and deaths from news and police reports, eyewitness accounts, lawsuits, industry sources and public-information documents.

It's not a complete list because data are hard to get and there's no national clearinghouse for information, he said. But last year in a sampling of the most dangerous events, Wertheimer surveyed 31 concerts in 11 countries and counted 55 deaths, more than 11,400 injuries, 418 arrests and more than $33,000 in property damage.

Of those 31 concerts, 14 were held in the United States and accounted for an estimated 10 deaths (which included drug, traffic and crime-related deaths), more than 1,000 injuries and nearly 400 arrests. Wertheimer estimates that at least 20,000 Americans receive first-aid at concerts in the United States every year.

Wertheimer said his figures are conservative and that in the 10 years he's conducted the survey, no one has proved them false.

His biggest beef: general-admission tickets that allow promoters to pack venues and make people compete for a limited number of spots up front.

"Being in a pit can be a lot of fun with the camaraderie, the music, the touching, the chaos," said Wertheimer, a music fan who has logged more than 100 hours in mosh pits from Seattle to Copenhagen, Denmark. "Early on, people looked out for each other. But chaos with etiquette turned into an all-out brawl when you had people who came in with the intent to hurt other people or take advantage of women under the cloak of darkness and the anonymity of the pit."

Wertheimer founded Crowd Management Strategies, a Chicago-based consulting firm, in 1992 "because I didn't think the concert industry should be allowing the same things to happen, the same missteps, time and time again."

He believes mosh pits can be safe, citing the opening of Seattle's Experience Music Project, when organizers limited the number of people allowed into the pit. And he celebrates the little evidence he sees of progress. A few U.S. cities and colleges — including New Orleans, Denver and the University of San Diego — have banned crowd surfing and stage diving. In Europe, many concert organizers have banned such activities since the deaths of nine Pearl Jam fans at the 2000 Roskilde Festival in Denmark.

But Wertheimer is frustrated by the lack of movement here: At a 1994 conference in Seattle for members of the International Association of Assembly Managers (IAAM), he introduced "mosher-friendly" safety guidelines which, he said, have since been adopted by a number of U.S. and European cities. They include restricting access to mosh pits, padding barricades, providing free water and banning crowd surfing, stage diving and steel-toe-boot-wearing fans — all recommendations the organization has since ignored, he said.

Julie Herrick, director of IAAM communications, said each venue has its own policies and IAAM only provides training, seminars and workshops on crowd safety. The bottom line, said Wertheimer, is that there's no real pressure on the concert industry to change things — and it won't change until insurance companies tire of paying for lawsuits filed on behalf of those killed or injured at concerts.

Which means there will be more Scott Stones.

"A serious head injury is a horrible thing to happen, especially when you went to a concert to have fun," said Wertheimer. "It's just a rock concert — so why should parents have to worry that their kids may be in some kind of mortal danger?"

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com.

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