Thanksgiving is traditionally a day that we take to be with our families and reflect on all the good in our lives.

It's also become a starting line for a race that retailers hope we'll opt into — the race to get the best deals and throw our money their way in the service of showing our families a "nice" Christmas or other winter holiday.


The fervor is real. Image by Powhusku via Wikimedia Commons.

Some people take part in these rituals as a kind of consumer tradition, and on the surface, it's not that bad. After all, if they're enjoying themselves and saving some money and not hurting anybody, who really cares? And that's mostly a good point.

Except sometimes people do get hurt.

Because crowd control is a combination of an art and a science and because turnout can be unpredictable, dangling an enticingly cheap deal to consumers without regard for safety can result in tragedy for shoppers and workers alike.

It cost Jdimytai Damour his life in 2008.

Damour had just been hired through a temp agency to work in the Walmart stock room. His friends recall him as a "gentle giant," and "always lively." They used to call him "Jimbo."

Early that Black Friday morning at the Valley Stream, New York, Walmart store, one of the security guards hired for the event didn't show up. So the store manager called Damour up to man the front doors — even though Damour had no crowd training. The manager wanted a big guy up there. One co-worker recalled Damour saying, as the crowd grew frantic outside the doors, that he really did not want to be there.

Seemingly caught under the crush of feet and the door that was pushed completely off of its encasement when an army of shoppers overwhelmed barricades, Damour was reportedly trying to help a struggling pregnant woman when he was trampled. He was unable to be resuscitated by the time help arrived and was pronounced dead shortly after 6:00 a.m.

This isn't just a weird incident, either. Situations like these can be inherently unsafe.

Though Damour was caught in the stampede, the cause of his death was actually not internal injuries, but asphyxiation. How? There's a phenomenon called "crowd crush," explained in-depth in The New Yorker, which may to be blame. When bodies pack too tightly together and become almost a giant single mass that ebbs and flows as one, it can create conditions that squeeze your chest area to the extent that breathing becomes impossible. How does a crowd get so bad so quickly?

Humans in crowds communicate worse than ants.

Unlike ants and other animals that have developed internal systems for the front of their crowds to communicate with the rear of their crowds, for all of our technology, human beings have no such system. So putting ourselves in the midst of huge crowds is taking a big risk — we humans are bad at crowd behavior and many security companies hired to manage crowds aren't all that savvy about it either. When pushing begins, counter-pushing is inevitable, and in the wrong conditions, it can result in a kind of human wave. The force created from that is nearly impossible for a single person to counteract or extract themselves from, and if they fall and end up under feet ... well, may fate have mercy.

Here's a local news report detailing what happened to Jdimytai Damour.

So what does the public need to know in order to stay safe?

1. If you can avoid Black Friday shopping, why not? You'll be one less person adding to a crowd that can be unpredictable, you will have zero risk of injury due to a store that didn't take proper precautions, and your family will be happier with your presence than they will be with "stuff."

2. If you DO go, keep in mind crowd dynamics. Don't pack together too tightly. Don't push or push back. If you need to get out of a big crowd, it's easiest to get out by going in the direction the crowd is, but inching toward the perimeter.

3. I know most people out there won't find themselves in this situation on Friday. But if things start to get dicey (in any crowd crush), keep your elbows out and up to try to ensure your ribcage won't get crushed. Try like hell not to fall — hold on to someone if you start to feel faint. If you do fall, protect your head.

4. If you want to shop, go ahead and shop. Just watch out for others and help others and keep in mind what the giving spirit is really about.

May we all have a safe and happy time with our family and friends throughout the season!

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