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Crushed in the rush for bargains

Outside a Wal-Mart, a line became a shoving mob. A woman fell and broke her arm. The doors opened, and shoppers surged.

December 06, 2008|Erika Hayasaki | Hayasaki is a Times staff writer.

NEW YORK — He took his last breath on a gray floor, between a row of soda machines and a device that disperses change for cans and plastics.

Trampled by a mob of bargain-hungry Black Friday shoppers, Jdimytai Damour, 34, died by asphyxiation, leaving people across the world asking: Why, and how?

Audio-enhanced chatter captured on a cellphone video posted on YouTube, along with interviews with witnesses, offers a hint. The video shows a police officer crouching by a 6-foot-5, 270-pound man lying at the entrance of a Long Island Wal-Mart. A paramedic pumps the man's chest so forcefully his limp legs and feet joggle. Shoppers peer in from behind glass doors, as others stand a few feet away, hands in pockets.

"They need to shock him," a voice says. The paramedic stops pumping.

The man's shirt has been pulled to his neck, revealing his large belly. A woman in the crowd mutters "pregnant." Another cracks a joke.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, December 10, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Trampling death: An article in Saturday's Section A about a Wal-Mart worker trampled to death by shoppers during a day-after-Thanksgiving sale said Black Friday occurred Nov. 25. It was Nov. 28.

The women begin to laugh.

--

The trouble began well before the sun rose.

Just after 1 a.m., Jennifer Jones, 25, and niece Alicia Sgro, 14, parked themselves behind the 200 or so early shoppers, in front of the Valley Stream store, 20 miles east of Manhattan. Jones wanted the 32-inch plasma flat-screen TV on sale for $388. Sgro hoped to pick up DVDs, like "Cloverfield," on sale for $2 to $9.

Dressed in heavy coats and a blanket, they brought Pop-Tarts, muffins and Chex Mix for the wait. The couple in front of them wanted the $25 microwave. The guy behind wanted the $5 blender.

By the time Nakea Augustine showed up at 3:15 a.m. on Nov. 25, the line had grown to 1,000, snaking down to a National Wholesale Liquidators store, stopping near a fire hydrant.

Augustine, 26, cut the line, finding a spot in front with her friend, who had been among the first to arrive. She heard people plotting their shopping strategy: One person would run to one section, while the other dashed to another aisle. Augustine had studied the sales brochure before coming. She knew about the Hot Wheels Barbie jeep, regularly around $200, on sale for $88, and the $20 vacuum cleaner.

A 59-year-old man, whom co-workers call "Pop Pop," was stationed in front of the store. At 5-11 and over 200 pounds, Pop Pop has worked as a door guard for Wal-Mart for the last seven months.

Until three weeks ago, he had been assigned front-door duty, checking customer receipts. Once, a customer poked him in the head for trying to lock the doors when shopping hours ended. Others yelled and argued with him. He moved to back-door duty after getting fed up with rude customers.

But on this morning, Pop Pop agreed to stand in front again, next to a set of doors away from the crowd, where customers would be leaving. Three men worked the side with him, including Damour.

Pop Pop, who was afraid of company reprisal if he gave his full name, remembered Damour telling him, "I don't want to be here." He figured Damour meant he didn't feel like being at work.

Across the entrance lobby, eight men, younger than Pop Pop, guarded the door closest to the crowd. Pop Pop remembered someone telling Damour to move to that side.

--

By 3:30 a.m., the crowd had grown to 2,000, and Jones and her niece decided to fold their chairs, standing to mark their territory. In the 30-degree darkness, their bodies felt hot-glued to everyone else. The line began to heave and sway, like a tugboat dragging its vessels through a heavy current.

Jones watched a gray plastic shopping cart rise above their heads. People passed it from hand to hand, as if it were body-surfing at a rock concert.

Jones heard someone yell "Tickets!"

She felt shoving and pushing.

Augustine heard someone yell "Psych!"-- as in "psyched you out." People became enraged. The line disintegrated into a chaotic cluster.

"It got scary out of nowhere," Augustine later recalled. "The crowd in the back just pushed."

Someone yanked Augustine's pocketbook off her shoulder, and ripped the side of her three-quarter-length leather coat.

A woman with a pierced lip pushed Jones, who said back to her: "We can't move!" She looked up, and felt someone sucker-punch her left temple. The force knocked off her glasses.

Sgro fell to the ground, as the woman with the pierced lip pulled her red hair. Sgro's right arm was broken. Sgro called her mother, Therese, telling her "we were attacked." Her mother called 911 and raced to the scene with her husband, Robert, a firefighter.

They got there when police arrived. Therese Sgro told an officer, "Can't you see the crowd is out of control?"

She said he replied sarcastically: "I'm surprised we haven't heard gunshots yet."

Police stayed about a half an hour, leaving before the store opened. Jones and the Sgros left too.

Meanwhile, Augustine was in line, struggling to breathe. Wal-Mart workers kept yelling at the crowd: "Move back four feet!" No one did.

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