The Tragic Black Friday Stampede That Killed a Walmart Employee

Ryan Fan

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“How could you take a man’s life to save $20 on a TV?” one Walmart employee said about Jdimytai Damour, his deceased co-worker.

As a child, one local news story scared me like no other. It was a horror story about a stampede at a Walmart that killed an employee on Black Friday. The Walmart was in Valley Stream, New York, only about 20 minutes away from where I lived.

It was the first death related to Black Friday shopping.

To this day, the stampede story has made me reluctant to go anywhere overnight for Black Friday shopping. The most I ever shopped at Black Friday was for a discounted version of Guitar Hero when I was 12-years-old, at 6 p.m. on Friday. The deal wasn’t even that great — we got $20 off on the game, which meant it was cheaper than usual, but not anything worth waiting at the store overnight for.

I was again reminded of the stampede when I heard news of a “crowd surge” at a Travis Scott concert that killed eight people and injured hundreds. A professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, Brian Higgins, said the crowd and people were not violent despite the violence of eight people dying took place.

“This is a crowd where everybody’s doing the same thing, and what they’re focused on is nothing else around them, just the performance in front of them…They’re drawn towards the performance,” Higgins says.

But how can you call a crowd of normal people not violent when someone is killed, let alone eight people? How can you say a crowd isn’t violent when there seems to be a complete disregard for human life?

Although it was merely a local story to me when I was living in Queens, it would be all over the news for more than a week. I remember when I later worked at Walmart how lucky I felt not to work on Black Friday. Plus, as a stocker, I would usually never have to greet a possible stampede at the entrance.

For those who don’t know, Black Friday is a shopping holiday in the U.S. with very discounted prices on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Many stores will open as early as midnight after Thanksgiving, and Black Friday is usually the busiest shopping day in the United States.

According to Erin Fuchs at Business Insider, the Walmart stampede happened on Black Friday in 2008. The Walmart employee killed was Jdimytai Damour, a 34-year-old, 480-pound son of Haitian immigrants. Damour was only a temporary worker at Walmart, who worked at the stockroom in the store.

Fuchs notes Damour was one of eight of the largest employees at the store, told to stand at the entrance of the store to greet the crowd. None of them had any training in crowd management. He was one of the largest employees at the store the manager told him to stand at the entrance. Police had already been called to corral the crowd of 2,000 people that had been absolutely out of control. However, the police said controlling the crowd was “not in their job description.”

So what actually happened, and what was the context behind Jdimytai Damour’s death?

John Seabrook at the New Yorker gives the most detailed account and explanation of the events on the night of Thanksgiving, 2008. A sign called “Blitz Line Starts Here” advertised “doorbuster” sales on technology like TVs and iPods.

Seabrook also gives some important context into the time: it was only two months after the stock market crash that led to the Great Recession, and many were desperate for financial hope.

Shoppers started coming to the store at 5:30 p.m., and the line started accumulating from there. At 2 a.m., the line spanned multiple buildings and included over a thousand people. Seabrook says store managers made a buffer zone with barricades to stop people from crowding the entrance, but some customers started to jump past the barriers.

The assistant manager called the Nassau County, New York police. Law enforcement got people to stop jumping the barriers, but pressure on the doors started building, especially when a Walmart employee got some family members through the buffer zone, enraging the crowd.

Before the 5 a.m. opening, a two thousand person crowd accumulated at the Walmart. A security assets manager told the manager he should not open the store, but the manager did not listen.

At this point, the manager got eight to ten employees, many of whom did not even work at the door, to stand at the outside entrances and assist any customers who fell. The employees, including Damour, assisted a pregnant woman who was being pushed against the outer doors, and the crowd surged when they let the woman in, thinking the store was opening.

The manager started a countdown to signal the opening of “Blitz Day.”

The doors opened, and mayhem ensued.

Some employees clung to doors as the out-of-control crowd came in. Others jumped on top of vending machines.

The pregnant woman, Leona Lockley, said Damour was trying to stop people from trampling her and pushing her to the ground. However, Damour was hit by a sliding door, and the door fell on top of him. Cell phone camera footage then shows him “vanish[ing] into a tangle of limbs,” in Seabrook’s words.

Through the walkie-talkies Walmart employees carried, “big guy down” was the message. Some co-workers worked their way through the crowd to reach Damour, but he was unconscious. At 5:05 police arrived and performed CPR on Damour, but the CPR was unsuccessful — Damour was pronounced dead an hour later at the hospital.

The cause of death was asphyxia (when the body does not get enough oxygen).

Takeaways

The Walmart stampede that killed Damour was not the first or last crowd disaster gone terribly wrong. The Travis Scott concert will not be the last either.

Seabrook cites one Muslim ritual that is part of the Islamic Hajj in Mecca, the Stoning of the Devil, which went terribly wrong in 2006. It led to the death of at least 346 pilgrims. In terms of concerts, the Travis Scott concert was a horrible tragedy, but not the deadliest. Fires are more dangerous than stampedes, and the 1979 concert by a British rock band called “The Who” in Cincinnati led to the death of more people.

There are a lot of lessons from the Travis Scott concert, as well as the Valley Stream Walmart stampede: crowds are dangerous, and staff at events require significant crowd management training and skills.

But there’s also the issue of responsibility and liability.

Who, at the end of the day, was responsible for Damour’s death? Obviously, no one actually stampeded and asphyxiated him besides people in the crowd. But who was in the crowd? How can anyone who was identified by security cameras be held responsible when they can say they were not pushed by someone behind them?

The crowd was responsible, but it’s hard to actually hold a crowd responsible. In the wake of Damour’s death, there was a significant amount of finger-pointing. Nassau County law enforcement blamed Walmart. Walmart blamed the police, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) blamed Walmart.

Similar finger-pointing is at play in the Travis Scott concert tragedy — how much is Travis Scott himself responsible? How much of it was the reckless behavior of the crowd?

We can speak at length about the legal proceedings, but at the end of the day, Walmart avoided all criminal charges, even a wrongful death suit from Damour’s family. The company did pay $400,000 to Damour’s family in a settlement.

In terms of prevention, Walmart could have played the biggest part in prevention. One store employee testified “Blitz Day” in 2007 was similarly out of control, saying many people fell, he had been nicked by broken glass, and the manager had done little to change and prevent a similar situation.

OSHA and Walmart went to court, with 1200 pages of testimony involved. Walmart dropped the “Blitz Day” branding and the Valley Stream store equipped the store with more staff and had a significantly more orderly line the next year.

OSHA found Walmart had not trained its employees properly in crowd control and fined Walmart $7,000. Still, Walmart fought the OSHA finding.

Damour’s family found the penalty to be an incredibly lax slap on the wrist:

“It’s like if they were driving a car and they hit someone, killed him, and then just walked away,” Damour’s father said.

Seven years after the tragedy, the New York Daily News spoke to Damour’s family, many of whom were still grieving Damour’s death. Damour’s cousin, Ralph Damour, called him a “gentle giant,” and the family often thinks of him whenever they visit Walmart. Ralph refuses to go Black Friday shopping to this day, saying it would be “dishonoring his memory.”

One website called the Black Friday Death Count documents 11 deaths and 108 injuries on Black Friday related to shopping.

What happened to Damour was an absolute tragedy, but the lesson for all of us as regular people is to be careful of crowds. I’ve been to concerts, sports games, and other big crowd situations where I’ve probably been in a similar mindset to people at the Walmart or the Travis Scott concert. However, I’ve never been close enough to a stage or to the front of the crowd to be in danger myself or put anyone else in danger. These horror stories stay in my mind whenever I’ve been close to or in a large crowd in general.

What we see is the failure of big businesses, celebrities, and institutions designed to protect safety in crowds. We see how often we cannot trust those responsible to protect us in crowd control situations. In far too many crowds gone out of control is there an “every man for themselves” mentality.

Everyone has a part in preventing these situations, but I refuse to believe regular, normal people like ourselves have no agency whatsoever whenever we’re present in a crowd. At the same time, how much can one person control a crowd of thousands of people?

The best prevention for avoiding tragedies at big events is preparation. Those responsible for crowd control must see and stop disasters before they happen.

Originally published on CrimeBeat on November 24, 2021.

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