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UCLA students describe ‘terrifying’ scene amid crush of bodies outside Pauley Pavilion

UCLA players huddle in the closing seconds of Friday's overtime victory over Villanova.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

UCLA students who waited hours to attend the basketball team’s thrilling overtime victory over Villanova on Friday at Pauley Pavilion described a chaotic scene as tipoff neared when a crush of fans outside the arena created a dangerous situation similar to the recent deadly surge at the Astroworld Festival in Houston.

Senior political science and history major Tobias Sunshine said he and his girlfriend were forced into an enormous crowd that overran Bruinwalk on campus, with lines of fans converging into one mob.

“It turned into mayhem,” Sunshine told The Times. “As soon as people started to move, the whole crowd would move in waves. ... People were getting pushed and crushed, yelling out, ‘Stop moving!’ ”

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A crush of fans at rapper Travis Scott’s Astroworld Festival Nov. 5 resulted in nine deaths.

UCLA athletic department spokesman Scott Markley acknowledged issues outside the arena before the second-ranked Bruins rallied for an 86-77 overtime victory over fourth-ranked Villanova in front of a sellout crowd of 13,659.

“With a sold-out game and enormous student and fan interest, we’re aware of challenges with the line and were not adequately staffed,” Markley said. “We apologize and will correct it going forward.”

The Houston police and fire departments were deeply involved in safety measures for the music festival where a surging crowd killed eight people.

Markley said there were no known or reported injuries. UCLA Health media relations also confirmed there were no patients at Ronald Reagan Medical Center with injuries stemming from the basketball crowd control issues.

UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond issued an apology to Markley’s on Twitter.

Jarmond announced Saturday several changes to enhance safety, including more staff to assist and manage the line, additional structures for a better controlled line, and an examination of student ticket distribution practices in conjunction with the Den student group and student affairs.

“We have high expectations for our student and fan experience,” Jarmond said, “and while the game was great, we didn’t meet those expectations for everyone. We will learn from this and get better.”

Freshman political science major Cole Zickwolff said the crowd surges started about 2½ hours before the game when two lines melded into one and shoving from behind pushed students into classmates.

“There was a series of waves caused by pushing in the back of the line, which rippled through the crowd,” Zickwolff said. “It was quite terrifying; I could hear the murmurs and noises coming before I even felt any motion. It reminded me of the way a tsunami sucks out water into the ocean before it crashes on shore.”

Zickwolff said police eventually arrived but didn’t provide assistance beyond yelling at students not to move or to take steps backward.

“They didn’t seem to understand that our movement was not determined by us,” Zickwolff said, “but rather the people at the back of the line who were pushing.”

UCLA rallies from a 10-point deficit to force overtime and defeat Villanova 86-77 in the first big test of the season for the title-chasing Bruins.

Another problem involved students cutting in line, preventing others who had waited significantly longer from getting inside Pauley Pavilion. Some students were joined by groups of friends who instantly moved up in line by virtue of assuming their spot.

Junior applied math major Hayden Epinette said he was unable to attend the game after waiting about seven hours after his group of friends got in line around 11:45 a.m. A UCLA staffer told the group that it was roughly No. 250 in line but as game time approached, someone in the group was told that more than 1,000 wristbands to get into the game had already been distributed as a result of others who had cut in line.

“It was simply ridiculous,” said Epinette, who was forced to watch the game with friends at one of their apartments. “It was very frustrating to see students enjoying themselves at such a big game who we knew didn’t belong there. It was especially irritating that the Den told us to line up by 12 and that no spots in line could be saved, when clearly neither of those things ended up being relevant.”

The Den is the name of the Bruins’ student section, and the Den Operations Club is a student organization that works with UCLA athletics officials to “promote student sport culture on campus, enhance the in-game experience across sports, and increase student attendance” at games, according to its website.

Even some of those who were able to make it inside Pauley Pavilion expressed irritation.

“While I did get in and enjoyed the game, I feel absolutely horrified and extremely exhausted and anxious about the situation,” Sunshine said. “There is definitely the possibility that someone could have been seriously injured or dead. My girlfriend said it was one of the worst experiences of her life.

“I am very ashamed of the athletics administration, and I know that many other students are very alienated now and do not want to attend any more games.”


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