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Man Facing Audience Causes 'Stampede' at Union Square Theater, Witness Says

By Danielle Tcholakian | December 19, 2016 6:00pm

MANHATTAN — A man behaving strangely caused a "stampede" in a Union Square movie theater, police said. 

The incident occurred near the end of a showing of the movie "La La Land" at the Regal Union Square Stadium cinemas Saturday, according to police and Ben Gilbert, a witness who was at the screening.

Gilbert recalled hearing someone having what sounded like a phone conversation and other moviegoers shushing the person.

"It sounded like he was talking on his cellphone," Gilbert said. "And then he was like, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, f—g be quiet, f—g shut up."

The man then went to the front of the theater, near the screen, and appeared to be holding a bag of some kind.

"I was like, 'Oh, that person must be really into this film,'" Gilbert said.

Then the man started to turn around to face the audience, "and that's when everybody started to flip out," he noted.

"Popcorn was flying and people were jumping over seats," he said. 

Gilbert's wife's jacket got caught on her seat as people were shouting "and streaming all over the place," he said.

"We were stuck in the seat for an extra — I don't know, it felt like forever but it was probably one second," he said.

The scene was "total chaos," he said.

The crowds jammed at one of the exits as people tripped over a step, and Gilbert said others told him that some people were knocked over and trampled.

Another woman on Twitter told him that the exit she attempted to use was blocked by theater employees. 



Movie-goers congregated in the lobby, Gilbert said, and many were crying as police arrived on scene.

When things calmed down, he returned to the theater with others who, like him, had left bags and other personal belongings behind.

He tweeted a video of the aftermath in the theater, where his bag had been thrown up in the air and the newspaper he had inside had been flung all over the theater.



According to Gilbert, employees at the theater seemed quick to blame the guests for overreacting, with one "interrogating" the patrons, saying, 'What happened, why did you all run out?'

"The staff was not helpful, mostly incompetent, and seemed eager to blame the audience members' for the panic," Gilbert said.

He added that the theater tried to offer people vouchers after they had "hung around for 45 minutes," but many refused, demanding cash refunds and saying they did not want to come back.

None of the people who stayed behind "received an apology or really any sort of understanding or empathy from the management," Gilbert said.

The general manager for the theater did not respond to phone calls or emails requesting comment. 

An NYPD spokeswoman said the incident was classified as "reckless endangerment" and that theater personnel told police the man had purchased a ticket to another movie at a different time.

The package that witnesses reported seeing in the man's hand was a cup, the spokeswoman added.

Police have already closed the case "because there's nothing to go by," she said.

"I haven't felt that freaked out except for in Afghanistan or Iraq getting rocketed," said Gilbert, a journalist who has reported from various war zones.