Trapped in a Sea of Church Ladies

Last night many women who attended a huge church conference at the Dallas Convention Center found themselves in the midst of a nightmarish crowd control situation when thousands of people were forced to exit through only two sets of two doors. When they finally wrenched themselves out of the mass of bodies and stepped outside late at night, they faced another obstacle—according to two women who attended, there were only two Dallas police officers directing traffic.

It was the second night of the Church of God in Christ's 56th Women's International Convention, which hosts as many as 30,000 women from all over the world. The predominantly black Church of God in Christ is the largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States.

"Mother" Willie Mae Rivers, the women's general supervisor for the COGIC, was the speaker. Her topic: "Women of Courage Moving Forward With Prayer, Faith and Wisdom." And that's exactly what they needed last night—prayer to get out of the mess at the Convention Center. Lola Hines of Fort Worth said she got stuck in the crush of people at the two exits that were left open; all others, she says, were locked. "If there had been a fire," she said, "we would have got burned up. It was awful. It was just terrible last night. It was too big a crowd."

The last time the COGIC had its annual women's convention in Dallas was in the 1970s, she said, and "Dallas wasn't ready. And Dallas still isn't ready."

Mother Rivers had asked all of last night's attendees to stay until the benediction, and most of the women did. The session ended at about 10:30 p.m., but the Convention Center clearly wasn't prepared for so many women to leave at once. (The Convention Center claims 3,000 people were there, but the hall they were in has a capacity of 15,000, and Hines says it was packed.) Hines watched helplessly as some of her friends—including a 95-year-old woman—were caught up in the press, along with others in wheelchairs and on walkers. "I said, Lord, don't let me pass out here," she said. "There was nobody directing the crowds—you had to push and direct your own self." People ended up shoving and getting squeezed—though whether it was intentional or whether they were simply giving way to the surge of bodies behind them isn't clear. The COGIC ladies are a decorous bunch, and many of the attendees are elderly.

Hines is a veteran of many COGIC conventions, and she's never seen such poor crowd control. It took her an hour and a half to get from the Convention Center to the Hilton Anatole, where many of the conventioneers are staying for the week. She heard that Mayor Laura Miller is attending tonight's session, and her roommate put a call in to the mayor's office today to warn about the inadequate crowd control.

When Unfair Park contacted the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau for comment, spokeswoman Phyllis Hammond countered that "there were no locked doors whatsoever--all the doors were open," and the crowd control issues came about because a transportation plan devised by private meeting planners "wasn't going quite as smoothly as it should." Conventioneers were pooled in a lobby waiting for private buses and shuttles, and when the crowd got too big, the Convention Center sent in extra security. To her knowledge, Hammond said, there were "no incidents of trampling," fainting or anything requiring medical attention. The Convention Center was meeting today with representatives of the COGIC to come up with a better plan, she said.

Frank Poe, director of the Dallas Convention Center, suggested that the COGIC was to blame for many of the problems last night. The Convention Center recommended that the COGIC hire four off-duty Dallas police officers; the COGIC had only one, he said. Tonight there will be four, and he expects attendees to have a much better experience.--Julie Lyons

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