Gathering of Nations overcrowding causes concern

ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – UNM’s former fire marshal is raising safety questions about one of the Gathering of Nations’ highlight events.

One of Albuquerque’s most important cultural and economic events features the Grand Entry. It’s a ceremony where representatives of tribes from around the world dance and celebrate together, up to 2,000 people on the Pit floor at once.

“Those are big moments when you’ve got over 500 nations in full regalia from 2 year olds to 90 year olds dancing together,” said Billy Sparks, event liaison for UNM. “It’s a very sacred moment for everybody.”

But is it safe?

In September 2013, UNM hired former Albuquerque Fire Department Fire Marshal Andrew Chavez as UNM’s fire marshal.

At a Gathering of Nations Safety Committee Meeting on February 10, Chavez raised the issue of what the limit should be for people on the Pit floor.

While the Pit has a capacity of 17,100 for the Gathering of Nations, there is no hard cap for how many people can occupy the floor of the famous arena.

“There’s not a set number for that,” Sparks said. “So we really have to determine [that number] by our own common sense and our concern.”

According to the minutes from that meeting, State Fire Marshal John Standefer acknowledged that “2,000 people on the floor presented a safety concern.” Standefer told KRQE News 13 that’s because 2,000 is right at the limit of what’s he’s comfortable with but does not exceed it.

Chavez contends that the limit for the amount of space on the floor should be closer to 1,200. Any more than that and in an emergency, trampling becomes a concern as does the risk of participants not getting out of the building fast enough.

According to the meeting minutes, Standefer told Chavez a capacity limit on the arena floor would be “difficult to enforce and will be exceeded” and that if Chavez wanted a cap it would be his duty to force the change on event organizers.

“At this point all I can say is, ‘Good luck,’” Standefer said according to the minutes.

After consulting with others in the meeting, Chavez declined to set that cap but did resign from his post partly because he felt his concerns went unheeded.

“He brought up a legitimate issue,” said Sparks. “I think we resolved it properly and we’re prepared for whatever eventuality takes place. People will be safe here.”

UNM said because Standefer doesn’t feel changes are necessary, the school has not asked the Gathering of Nations to make changes to the Grand Entry.

Sparks said during that event there are dozens of crowd control managers who can get people out quickly in the event of an emergency. The Pit’s tunnel, while not typically considered an emergency exit also provides a quick way for people to get out if disaster strikes. He also says arena capacity limits are strictly enforced through ticket sales.

Sparks also says there hasn’t been a problem in the event’s 31 year history.

“We take safety very very seriously at every event we have on UNM’s campus,” Sparks said. “If I’m looking down on the floor and I think it looks too crowded, we’ll stop the flow [of people].”

Standefer said Chavez’s estimate isn’t necessarily wrong, just that five different fire marshals could look at the code and the situation and come up with different estimates.

There are four Grand Entries at this year’s event. The first one is Friday at noon.

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