Twenty years ago Wednesday, a UW-Madison freshman and sophomore, sisters from New Jersey and second-generation Badgers, got ready to storm the field with thousands of others to celebrate an epic University of Wisconsin football victory over Michigan.
Instead they got swallowed up in a crush of humanity in the Camp Randall Stadium bleachers. Fences and railings near the field kept the surge from moving before eventually crashing under its weight. Bodies piled on bodies. Fans trampled other fans. Bones broke. Breathing became strained.
“I remember my sister telling somebody to lift me up because I was turning blue,” said Samantha Fenik Johns, then a sophomore and now a mother of three in suburban New York City.
The memory brought tears still today about a postgame party that mixed with life-or-death trauma. The band played and revelers danced the polka, at first not realizing they were feet from police officers administering CPR. A fleet of 16 ambulances descended on the field.
About 70 students, most of them female, were hospitalized. Ten of them were unconscious and not breathing when first treated at the scene.
“What we really had is 10 people who were clinically dead,” said Carl Saxe, then Madison Division fire chief, at the time.
Known as the stadium crush, the incident brought national headlines and photos of a football stadium that came to resemble a war zone. But it’s also notable for what didn’t happen.
No one died thanks to a quick response by on-field police and paramedics. No UW-Madison officials lost their jobs. No similar incidents have marred a game since thanks to structural changes made in the wake of the incident.
“Most of what happened was because of poor stadium design,” said Susan Riseling, UW-Madison police chief then and now. “Many of those things have been dealt with and taken care of.”
For Jordana Fenik Hannam, then a 17-year-old freshman, the traumatic event cemented her decision to pursue a medical degree. After helping rescue and stabilize her sister, she used high-school training as an emergency medical tech to help other victims, borrowing fans’ scarves to secure splints on broken bones.
“I was able to turn off emotion and jump in to help people,” said Hannam, now a pediatrician in New Jersey who specializes in caring for infants. “When I got back to my dorm that’s when the shock hit. I cried for two hours.”
Riseling still has a piece of the red railing that twisted and broke under the weight of thousands.
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“It’s kind of a reminder to me about how crowds that are seemingly celebratory can turn very, very quickly into dangerous crowds,” she said. “It’s also a reminder that human beings when in crowds are incredibly powerful. The fact is that they bent poles and chainlink fences like spaghetti.”
Riseling said the incident exposed flaws in bleacher design at the stadium, built in 1917, and ticketing policy.
At the time students had general admission tickets, which often resulted in severe overcrowding in one section as students migrated throughout the game. The problem was compounded, she said, by 70 rows of seats without aisles breaking them up or seatbacks.
Instead of traffic being funneled to the staircases, it encouraged students to funnel downward, using the bleachers as steps. It soon became apparent that a bottleneck was forming in the lower rows. Riseling said about 70 rows of people compressed into 40.
“Everybody was moving behind us but nobody was moving in front of us,” said Samantha Fenik Johns. “I could tell pretty quickly that something was happening.”
Only 5 feet tall and wearing a scarf and over-the-shoulder camera, she quickly got sucked into the human avalanche. Her sister, who’s much taller, saw the scene emerging and ducked under the crowd, crawling beneath the wave of people to safety in the stairwell. A friend helped pull Johns from the crowd, and her sister cared for her from there.
Their parents, both UW-Madison graduates, were at the game sitting near the end zone and watched the bizarre scene unfold.
“It was really terrifying because you didn’t know what was happening to your kids,” Genellen Fenik said.
Despite the traumatic day, university officials went forward with the next week’s game against Ohio State. The railings and fences were quickly rebuilt with breakaway gates. Ushers were told to deny entry of more fans into full sections. The game ended in a 14-14 tie, prompting no one to rush the field. Fenik Johns was there, still nursing cuts and bruises from being at the bottom of the pile a week before.
“I think it was a freak traumatic event,” she said. “It didn’t change my obsession with Badgers games.”
Riseling said many changes came in subsequent years. An aisle was added midway up the student section. The chainlink fence at field level and the track that used to circle the field were removed. Students are now assigned to a specific section to guard against overcrowding. She pointed to another Ohio State game in 2010. The Badgers beat the then-No. 1 ranked Buckeyes. Students again stormed the field. This time the flow was even and steady, with no injuries.