Shouting “Fire” In The Theatre

Today, May 4th, is Remembrance Day in The Netherlands. Throughout the country, ceremonies are held to remember the dead of World War II and other conflicts. Chief amongst these is the ceremony that is held in Dam Square in Amsterdam, in the presence of the Dutch Royal Family, politicians and veterans.

Today’s affair was a telling example of how crowd hysteria can suddenly take hold. Of course, many people would probably be on edge following the incident in Apeldoorn in 2009 on the Queen’s Birthday.

The Remembrance ceremony revolves around the two-minute silence held at 8pm, when throughout the Netherlands, people stop. Today, in Dam Square, in the presence of the Dutch Royal Family, politicians, veterans and thousands of people, another incident occurred. Just before the end of the two-minute silence, the stillness in the Square was broken by the sound of a man shouting. People started to panic, and a stampede began:

  

 

It appears as though an Orthodox Jew had suddenly started declaiming into the silence; as a result another man nearby, dropped his suitcase (er, his suitcase?) at this, and the crowd panics. The Royal Family are whisked away, and chaos ensues.

To give the organisers credit, order is soon restored as it becomes clear that it was a false alarm. But it just goes to show how easily shouting “fire!” in a crowded theatre can lead to panic.

At the impromptu press conference held a couple of hours later with the Amsterdam Mayor and Chief of Police, a journalist asked whether it was a good idea to let  people carrying suitcases into the Square. And so it goes – let’s all get frightened over phantoms. Fortunately, the Police Chief had the good sense to defuse the question. Hopefully, sanity will continue to prevail.

Update: It seems as though the man who caused the panic is a 39 year-old Amsterdammer who is well known to the police because of his record of theft, possession and dealing of drugs and threatening violence. He wore a hat, long black coat and has a full beard and long sideburns – that’s why many took him to be an Orthodox Jew. An eyewitness said that he was talking to himself during the silence, and when he was asked to be quiet by bystanders, he suddenly threw his head back and screamed. A man nearby dropped the case he was carrying, and panic ensues in which 63 people were hurt. The Dutch word "koffer" was used to described the case, but this is literally a portmanteau word that can describe anything from a handbag up to a suitcase, which is why I thought it was the latter. But now I suspect, given the fact that the police described the contents as being personal documents, that the man was probably carrying a briefcase.

About Geoff Coupe

I'm a British citizen, although I have lived and worked in the Netherlands since 1983. I came here on a three year assignment, but fell in love with the country, and one Dutchman in particular, and so have stayed here ever since. On the 13th December 2006 I also became a Dutch citizen.
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