SEQUIM — When ambulances and fire trucks blaring sirens raced by Natalie Thurston and Sam Smith as they sat on a curb in Houston waiting for a ride, the Sequim friends definitely knew there was something wrong.
The friends and fellow 2018 Sequim High graduate Cody Bell were three of about 50,000 people to venture to the Texas city for the Astroworld festival, an event headlined by Travis Scott, one of their favorite rappers.
As they began looking up articles and reports online, they were horrified to learn of the tragedies surrounding the sold-out event. The Associated Press reported last week that 10 people died during or later from sustained injuries from a surge to the stage during Scott’s set on Nov. 12 — including Axel Acosta Avila, a 21-year-old computer science major at Western Washington University.
More than 300 people were injured and at least 25 hospitalized, AP reported.
“We were all pretty shaken up,” Thurston said.
As more information became available, the friends watched videos of first responders trying to help people who had been crushed in the mosh pit and struggling to breathe.
“At one point on Saturday, I had to go to the bathroom because I felt so sick,” Thurston said.
The friends had begun planning the trip to Astroworld early in the summer.
“We’re all fans and we all wanted to do something together,” Smith said. “It was a cool idea to bond.”
“This is Travis Scott; this is going to be huge and fun,” Thurston said. “We’re going in November so it’ll get us out of this awful weather.”
The friends arrived in Houston from Sequim on Nov. 10 with the intention of exploring the city and seeing the venue before the show began.
Thurston had attended Scott’s tour at the Tacoma Dome in 2019 and felt prepared.
“It honestly was not out of hand when I went (there) and it was completely sold out,” she said. “I was in the (mosh) pit, but they weren’t out of hand. Travis fans care for each other.”
Upon arrival for Astroworld’s first planned day at about 10:30 a.m., the friends said they saw gates were broken down and found entrance security was lax. Inside, they ventured toward merchandise tables, where things became unruly.
“Immediately, the crowd started pushing and condensing,” Smith said.
Thurston said Scott’s shows are known for their high energy, and people seemed especially amped because Houston is his hometown and the 2020 concert was canceled because of COVID-19.
“People have been waiting and they (were) ready,” she said.
However, attendees kept pushing, breaking gates and throwing them, the friends said, which led police to close the line for merchandise.
“(Police) were telling people to cut it out and they started to get angry,” Thurston said.
One woman passed out in line and medics had to come, the friends said, and they heard people shouting that someone was Tased, but they didn’t see it.
“There was no music yet, just kids wanting a T-shirt,” Thurston said.
The friends opted to find a spot to enjoy the music and headed to the second stage.
Scott’s stage was dedicated to his evening performance.
“I’ve been to a lot of concerts, so I know how to work my way into the middle and the front, which is where I thought we wanted to be at,” Thurston said.
The intensity was there throughout the day, they said, and security pulled them out during Master P’s set at about 2 p.m. towards the front of the stage.
Thurston said Smith locked onto her and wouldn’t let go despite the crowd pushing hard on one another.
“(I thought), ‘I was not losing her’,” Smith said.
They went and got water and lunch and relaxed for a bit as it was warm and they were getting sunburned.
At about 3:30 p.m., they went back into the crowd to await more artists along a gate that divided the crowd, they said.
Thurston said she saw multiple people being pulled out because the pushing was so harsh.
Around 8 p.m., the friends went to Scott’s main stage for his 9 p.m. set.
“I felt fine all day, but then I just didn’t feel good,” Thurston said. “All of a sudden I felt super nauseous.”
Smith suggested they leave and get some water, so they did.
Where they were, the friends said, is where “all hell broke loose.”
At about 8:30 p.m., a 30-minute-timer started on the stage, Thurston said, and that’s when pushing and shoving began and intensified again, up until just seconds before Scott came out.
The friends stayed further back and were enjoying the music, not knowing that people were dying upfront.
“People around us weren’t pushing. They were just dancing and watching,” Smith said.
Thurston said they saw a lot of attendees coming out of the mosh pit though “drenched in sweat, struggling to breathe.”
“People in front were getting the worst of it and the people in the back were pushing and pushing to get closer to Travis, but they didn’t know what was happening in the front,” she said.
The friends saw medics going in front of them and noted that Scott stopped performing a few times to caution people during his approximate 70-minute set.
“He ended it like a normal concert, and thanked people for coming,” Smith said. “It did feel short.”
Once the show ended, Thurston said she got a text message from Bell’s brother asking him to call his mom. The friends said Bell had lost his phone and wallet at the show and they didn’t know where he was.
Smith said in case anything happened they had a plan to meet at lockers, so the pair stood on top of a light pole to find him. Bell ended up staying an extra day in Houston as he awaited his passport to arrive from his parents so he could travel, Thurston said.
He was unavailable for the group interview in Sequim.
More than a week later, the friends said there’s still a lot of raw emotion thinking about the show and listening to Scott’s music.
“I almost feel guilty for having fun,” Thurston said.
Separating an incident from an artist and their art is something they’ve considered and will likely keep listening to his music.
“With Travis’ music, there’s something about it,” Thurston said. “I’m emotionally and mentally touched by it. It helps you get through things.
“Everyone has an artist they’re really attached to, so it’s really hard when something like this happens to the artist you are attached to.”
Thurston said she’s been following victims’ court cases and finding the situations “gut-wrenching” to take in.
“To think that could be us; it’s just so sad,” she said.
The friends said they send their consistent condolences, thoughts and prayers to family members involved.
Matthew Nash is a reporter with the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which is composed of Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News, Sequim Gazette and Forks Forum. Reach him at [email protected].