Rock tragedy: Music superstars, small suburb forever linked

Deadly_Concert_40_Years_88419 In this Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019 photo, a memorial plaque for eleven concertgoers killed at a 1979 concert stands between Great American Ballpark and Heritage Bank Arena, in Cincinnati. Tragedy four decades ago linked the British rock band The Who to a small suburban city in Ohio. In recent years, members of the community and the band have bonded through a project to memorialize the three teens from Finneytown who were killed in a frantic stampede of people trying to get into The Who’s Dec. 3, 1979, Cincinnati concert. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Deadly_Concert_40_Years_85688 In this Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019 photo, pictures of the three Finneytown students killed in a stampede at The Who's Dec. 3, 1979 concert, are displayed in a memorial cabinet along with other mementoes at the Finneytown High School secondary campus in Finneytown, Ohio. Tragedy four decades ago linked the British rock band to the small suburban city in Ohio. In recent years, members of the community and the band have bonded through a project to memorialize the teens. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Deadly_Concert_40_Years_01669 In this Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019 photo, Fred Wittenbaum, of the P.E.M. scholarship that memorializes the three Finneytown students killed in a stampede at The Who's Dec. 3, 1979 concert, stands beside a cabinet of mementoes honoring the dead at the Finneytown High School secondary campus, in Finneytown, Ohio. Tragedy four decades ago linked the British rock band to the small suburban city in Ohio. In recent years, members of the community and the band have bonded through a project to memorialize the teens. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Deadly_Concert_40_Years_AP_Was_There_96489 FILE - In this Dec. 3, 1979 file photo, a security guard and an unidentified man look at an area where several people were killed as they were caught in a surging crowd entering Cincinnati's riverfront coliseum for a concert by the British rock band The Who. (AP Photo/Brian Horton, File)
Deadly_Concert_40_Years_AP_Was_There_69328 FILE - In this Dec. 3, 1979 file photo, concert-goers and a policeman stand with a pile of shoes and clothing which were left after a crowd surged toward doors to Cincinnati's riverfront coliseum to get into a rock concert by British rock band The Who, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Eleven fans where killed in the tragedy. (AP Photo/Brian Horton, File)
Deadly_Concert_40_Years_AP_Was_There_94487 FILE - In this Dec. 4, 1979 file photo, a young man shields his candle from the wind during a memorial service for those killed during a stampede at a rock concert by the British rock band The Who at Cincinnati riverfront coliseum in Cincinnati, Ohio. (AP Photo/Brian Horton, File)
Deadly_Concert_40_Years_AP_Was_There_34750 FILE - In this Dec. 3, 1979 file photo, Cincinnati police officers help people crushed during a performance by the rock group The Who in Cincinnati, Ohio. Eleven fans of the rock band were killed when a thousands-strong crowd stampeded to get into Cincinnati’s riverfront coliseum. (Ed Reinke/The Cincinnati Enquirer via AP, File)
Deadly_Concert_40_Years_28921 In this Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019 photo, the faces of the three Finneytown students killed in a stampede at The Who's Dec. 3, 1979 concert, are displayed as part of a memorial at the Finneytown High School secondary campus in Finneytown, Ohio. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Deadly_Concert_40_Years_07820 In this Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019 photo, Fred Wittenbaum, of the P.E.M. scholarship that memorializes the three Finneytown students killed in a stampede at The Who's Dec. 3, 1979 concert, is interviewed beside a quilted memorial to the dead at the Finneytown High School secondary campus, in Finneytown, Ohio. The small Cincinnati suburb and the British rock band became linked by tragedy 40 years ago. The tragedy has in recent years led to a bond, as The Who has helped memorialize the teens with a scholarship fund benefiting students in their honor every year. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Deadly_Concert_40_Years_09839 In this Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019 photo, a signed microphone by The Who's Roger Daltrey is displayed in a memorial cabinet at the Finneytown High School secondary campus in Finneytown, Ohio, along with other mementoes of the three Finneytown students killed in a stampede at the band's 1979 Cincinnati concert. Tragedy four decades ago linked the British rock band to the small suburban city in Ohio. In recent years, members of the community and the band have bonded through a project to memorialize the teens. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Deadly_Concert_40_Years_61817 In this Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019 photo, Fred Wittenbaum, of the P.E.M. scholarship that memorializes the three Finneytown students killed in a stampede at The Who's Dec. 3, 1979 concert, is interviewed beside a cabinet of mementos honoring the dead at the Finneytown High School secondary campus, in Finneytown, Ohio. The small Cincinnati suburb and the British rock band became linked by tragedy 40 years ago. The tragedy has in recent years led to a bond, as The Who has helped memorialize the teens with a scholarship fund benefiting students in their honor every year. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Deadly_Concert_40_Years_20415 In this Nov. 25, 2019 photo, Finneytown High School alumnus John Hutchins displays a Dec. 3, 1979, concert ticket signed in 2018 by The Who's vocalist Roger Daltrey as he stands in his home near Finneytown, Ohio. Hutchins helped organize a memorial scholarship fund to honor three Finneytown students killed in a fan stampede at The Who's Cincinnati concert 40 years ago. (AP Photo/Dan Sewell)
Deadly_Concert_40_Years_32343 In this Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019 photo, a memorial plaque for eleven concertgoers killed at a 1979 concert stands between Great American Ballpark and Heritage Bank Arena, in Cincinnati. Tragedy four decades ago linked the British rock band The Who to a small suburban city in Ohio. In recent years, members of the community and the band have bonded through a project to memorialize the three teens from Finneytown who were killed in a frantic stampede of people trying to get into The Who’s Dec. 3, 1979, Cincinnati concert. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
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FINNEYTOWN, Ohio (AP) — The concrete bench in a small northern Cincinnati suburb depicts a guitar, with the message “My Generation” just below it.

In the background are plaques with the faces of three teenagers, Jackie Eckerle, Karen Morrison and Stephan Preston, frozen in time 40 years ago. Bricks in the plaza around the bench carry eight other names.

All 11 were killed in a frantic stampede of people trying to get into the British rock band The Who’s concert on Dec. 3, 1979, at Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum. The city of Finneytown suffered disproportionately, and its three losses included the two youngest victims, 15-year-olds Eckerle and Morrison. Their schoolmates say well over 100 other people from Finneytown were there.

“Everyone’s connected to it, everywhere you go around here,” said Fred Wittenbaum, who was a freshman at Finneytown High School then but did not attend the concert. “Either they went to the concert, or they had a friend or a family member who was there.”

Since then, the community of around 12,000 people, many living in ranch-style homes built years before the concert, has been inextricably linked with The Who, which was already well on the way to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with such hits as “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” “Can’t Explain,” and “My Generation,” an anthem of rebellious youth.

Most of the blame afterward focused on the first-come, first-served arrangement for seating that saw thousands of fans line up for hours ready to charge toward the coveted floor spots, and on confusion over and lack of preparation for when the doors were opening. Besides those trampled in the stampede, some two dozen other fans were injured.

Frontman Roger Daltrey and guitarist Pete Townshend, the last survivors of the original band, say they have struggled emotionally over the years with the concert carnage, which they didn’t know about until their show was ending.

“Because there’s always a certain amount, ‘If I hadn’t been doing this, it wouldn’t have happened,’ you know,” Daltrey said during an unpublicized visit last year to the Finneytown memorial site. “That’s just human nature. That’s what we carry with us.”

“It took a long time for us to get a sense that this was not just about the 11 kids, it was about the community,” Townshend told The Associated Press in a recent interview in New York.

The sad stories and traumatic memories among Finneytown alums evolved three decades later into a plan to memorialize their friends.

John Hutchins was playing an acoustic set at a nearby venue in December 2009 and dedicated songs such as The Who’s “Love Ain’t For Keeping” to those who died at the concert. Hutchins was at The Who concert; he skipped school that day, got to the coliseum nearly seven hours early to be among the first in line, and got close enough to the stage to see The Who’s song list.

Fellow Finneytown High alum Steve Bentz, who wasn’t at the concert, approached Hutchins after his performance with a thought, that “we should do something.” The thought soon grew into the memorial bench.

They joined with Wittenbaum and Walt Medlock — who remembers being pressed tightly against Preston before making the possibly life-saving decision to work his way out of the crowd — to create the P.E.M. scholarship fund, using the last-name initials of their three schoolmates.

“We wanted to take what was a terrible tragedy and try and turn it into something that could be looked at as good,” Wittenbaum explained. “We wanted to pay it forward.”

Launched in 2010, the scholarships reward three Finneytown students with $5,000 each for the study of music or any other arts. There have awarded 27 so far.

Auctions and raffles at an annual December show featuring music by alumni at the school’s performing arts center help pay for the scholarships. The Who became involved in the third year, making an exclusive DVD for showing at that year’s benefit with comments from the band about the tragedy and new concert footage.

More aid from the band followed. Last year, Wittenbaum drove Daltrey from a private airstrip near Dayton to view the Finneytown memorials that include artwork, personal items and photos of the three in a Who-donated display case. Daltrey also met with relatives of those killed and with fans who attended the concert.

“It’s been a really cathartic process for everybody,” Wittenbaum said.

Daltrey-autographed books, albums, guitars and other items have been sold online, including on the band’s official site, to add to the fund. The P.E.M. leaders’ next goal is to see Daltrey and Townshend perform in Cincinnati for the first time since the deadly concert. In the AP interview, Townshend said the band plans to return to Cincinnati.

An announcement is expected Tuesday night, after a 40th anniversary documentary featuring interviews with Daltrey and Townshend airs on WCPO-TV in Cincinnati.

Alleson Arnold, 18, among the latest scholarship winners, moved to Finneytown several years ago and soon learned about the pain the community has felt. She said she is “very grateful” for the fund that will help her study fashion and design.

“It’s heartbreaking to know that I’m the same age as many of them,” she said. “I get to do the things that I want to be doing, but all that was taken away from them.”

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Associated Press writer John Carucci contributed from New York.

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Follow Dan Sewell at https://www.twitter.com/dansewell

Copyright © 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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