Autopsy confirms Wal-Mart worker trampled

December 1, 2008 9:27:40 PM PST
A worker trampled to death when hundreds of customers stormed into a Wal-Mart for early morning "Black Friday" bargains had no experience in crowd control and was placed at the entrance of the store because of his hulking, 270-pound frame, police and a lawyer said Monday. The details about the deadly holiday shopping stampede came out as police pored over video surveillance provided by the store as they considered possible criminal charges. Lawyers were also preparing to file lawsuits over the episode.

Nassau County Police Commissioner Lawrence Mulvey noted that the worker, Jdimytai Damour, was 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds, making the trampling all the more stunning. He was killed when a crowd estimated at 2,000 broke down the electronic doors in frantic pursuit of bargains on big-screen TVs, clothing and other items.

"Literally anyone, those hundreds of people who did make their way into the store, literally had to step over or around him or unfortunately on him to get into the Wal-Mart store," said Mulvey.

Mulvey said an autopsy found Damour, 34, died of asphyxiation related to his trampling, and he conceded that it would be difficult to file criminal charges against any of the shoppers.

"It goes beyond identifying specific people to make a case," Mulvey said. "You have to establish recklessness or intent to harm, which led to his death."

Attorney Jordan Hecht, who represents Damour's three sisters, said the family declined to make any public statements about the man's death. He said funeral arrangements were still pending.

Hecht said Damour had only been working at the Wal-Mart about a week and was hired through an employment agency that provides temporary staffing. He said Damour had not been trained for any security assignments and had no background in crowd control.

A call to the employment agency seeking comment was not immediately returned.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., in a statement Friday, called the incident a "tragic situation" and said it had tried to prepare for the crowd by adding staffers and outside security workers, putting up barricades and consulting police.

"Despite all of our precautions, this unfortunate event occurred," senior Vice President Hank Mullany said. Working through a spokesman, Mullany did not specifically comment on Mulvey's remarks Monday, but said the store was cooperating with investigators.

Hecht said he was considering a lawsuit, but no decision had been made. Two other injured shoppers filed a notice of claim Monday, the first step toward proceeding with a lawsuit.

At least four other people were treated and released at nearby hospitals after the stampede, including a woman who was eight months pregnant.

Mulvey said while investigators are still piecing together the details, it is apparent to him that the Wal-Mart store lacked adequate security to handle the crowds of shoppers that converged on Friday morning.

"In fact, security was inside the store and not outside organizing, arranging and planning for this anticipated opening," Mulvey said.

He said police officers were called to the scene at about 3 a.m., but left after about a half hour. He said the crowd - then estimated at about 400 - had not been unruly at that time.

The National Retail Federation, the industry's largest group, was unaware of any other store workers ever dying on the job in the post-Thanksgiving rush.

Shoppers around the country line up early outside stores on the day after Thanksgiving in the annual bargain-hunting ritual known as Black Friday. It got that name because it has historically been the day stores broke into profitability for the full year.

Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director of Strategic Resource Group, a retail-consulting firm, said retailers quickly learned they can attract massive crowds if they promise amazing savings and limit the inventory or availability of the sale items to a few hours.

He said a number of retailers have opted to distribute vouchers or organize the sales in other ways to "cut down on the tsunami of shoppers entering the store all at once."

"There are so many retailers doing it the right way, it seems senseless there wasn't strategic and operational planning here," Flickinger said.

He said in addition to not knowing how much inventory may be available on a sale item, shoppers often don't know the exact location where the merchandise is kept. "They get in early and run the retail racetrack," Flickinger said.

"It is a recipe for disaster," the police commissioner said. "And that's what happened here."

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