Durham student death: witness tells of 'shambles' of nightclub queue

Josh Halliday North of England correspondent
Olivia Burt was described as an ‘exceptional sportswoman’ and an ‘outstandingly able student’. Photograph: Paul Wyeth/RYA/PA

Tributes have been paid to a university student who died in a crush outside a packed nightclub as more details emerged about the “shambolic” moments before the fatal incident.

Olivia Burt, 20, who was in her first year at Durham University, died from a serious head injury following a crowd surge believed to have started when a group pushed into the 100-strong queue, according to witnesses.

Burt, a member of the British sailing team, was described by Durham as an “exceptional sportswoman” and a “bright and outstandingly able student”, as her friends spoke of the loss of a “wonderful girl”.

The former head girl at Bournemouth School for Girls was out with fellow members of the university sailing club on Wednesday night when the incident happened near the rear entrance of Missoula nightclub.

A fellow student, who was in the queue at the same time, told the Guardian they were “completely at the mercy of the crowd” during the crush that led to a barrier collapsing next to Burt.

The student, who did not wish to be named, said the rear entrance had been considerably busier than usual because the front entrance was closed, which he said was unusual on the university’s busiest club night.

The rear entrance was reserved for members of student sports clubs and the front used by everyone else, he said.

“Normally there’s a massive queue at the front, but that was closed so people went round the back. There were two lots of people in just one queue. There was the front and the back – but all at the back,” the student said.

A rival students’ union night held at the same time had also recently stopped running, he said, meaning Missoula was probably busier because it was the only big club operating.

Forensic officers at the scene outside Missoula nightclub in the Walkergate area of Durham. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA

The student, who said he was five yards behind Burt, said the situation at the rear entrance was a “shambles”, with only one doorman separating two growing queues, one of about 100 people and a second of about 30.

He said people could easily jump from the second queue into the first, where Burt was, closer to the club doors.

The “main shift” happened, he said, when a group of 10 to 15 people pushed straight into the first queue, prompting those in the second to surge forward.

“From my right shoulder, there was this massive movement of people who had seen people pushing in. I got pushed from my right shoulder towards my left, towards my mate who was by the barrier. You couldn’t control where you were going,” the student said.

“I’m not small and neither is my mate and we were completely at the mercy of the crowd. You couldn’t get your hands up or anything. This was very, very quick.

“It was one movement and one movement of that secondary queue moving into this first one, moving us left. We all pushed up against the barrier and the barrier fell down.”

The student said everyone stood next to the glass-topped barrier collapsed on top of it, smashing the glass as students frantically tried to pull each other up.

It was “immediately apparent” that Burt had suffered a serious head injury, he said. She was pulled out with a bleeding wound as a doorman and one of her friends tried to resuscitate her, but she died soon afterwards.

The club was evacuated as students spilled outside, with many in tears and
hugging each other outside the venue in the city’s Walkergate area.

Witnesses said there were about 600 people inside the club and more than 100 queueing outside at the time. Students have said there were two doormen on the rear door and no more than three more in the queues.

“It’s just a shambles. I think if they’ve closed the front door, surely then all their attention should be making sure the back is fine, which obviously it wasn’t,” the student said, who described the doorman separating the two queues as “fighting a losing battle”.

A large floral tribute was placed outside Missoula, formerly a Slug and Lettuce pub, which opened in September 2016 after a £385,000 investment.

The venue’s owner, the Stonegate Pub Company, said it would remain closed while an investigation was carried out.

When asked to comment on security arrangements for the queue, it issued a statement saying: “10 SIA-licensed door supervisors from a specialist security door service company were employed to manage security on the night of the accident.”

“We continue to assist police and the company who provide our door staff to fully understand what led to this terrible accident. Until that is concluded, we are unable to comment further. Our thoughts are with Olivia’s family and friends.”

On Friday, Stonegate had removed Durham from the list of venues on its website.

Chris Atherton, the senior high-performance manager of the Royal Yachting Association, paid tribute to Burt’s “drive, determination and good sportsmanship” as a sailor.

“Olivia’s passion for sailing always shone through and all those who knew her in the sailing community will miss her tremendously; she was both a likeable and fair competitor,” he said.

“Our thoughts and sympathies are with the family and friends of Olivia at this sad time.”