Mourning a Good Friend, and Trying to Make Sense of the Wal-Mart Stampede

November 30, 2008

damour.jpgJdimytai Damour was a big man — 270 pounds, by one account — but he was a gentle giant to his friends, who said he loved to chat about movies, Japanese anime and politics. 

So on Saturday, they were still reeling from the violent and seemingly inexplicable way that Mr. Damour had died — trampled before sunrise on Friday, the police said, by rampaging shoppers running into a Wal-Mart store on Long Island where he was working as a maintenance man for the holidays.
“If you wanted to know about a show, this was the guy, and he had a great sense of humor,” said Jean Olivier, who met Mr. Damour eight years ago in the Rosedale section of Queens, a few minutes’ drive from the store where he was killed. “He was the guy who was always lively. He would have personally gotten out of the way if he knew they wanted that stuff.”
Shoppers started lining up late Thursday night at the Wal-Mart, at the Green Acres Mall on Sunrise Highway in Valley Stream, not far from the Queens border, where DVDs, flat-panel television sets and other entertainment items were discounted to attract crowds on the traditional first day of the Christmas shopping season.
Mr. Damour, 34, who was known to his friends as Jimbo, or Jdidread because of his dreadlocks, got his job at Wal-Mart through Labor Now, an agency for temporary workers. He had been trying to hold back a crush of shoppers pressing against the store’s sliding-glass double doors, the authorities said. Just before the store’s scheduled 5 a.m. opening, they said, the doors shattered under the weight of the crowd. Mr. Damour was thrown to the floor and trampled.
The Nassau County police were trying to determine what happened during the stampede, but said it was unclear if there would be any criminal charges. Michael Aronsen, a Police Department spokesman, said he did not expect the department to announce the results of its investigation this weekend. The department has been looking at videos from the store’s surveillance cameras and sifting through witnesses’ accounts. Another department spokesman said on Friday that it would be difficult to determine who was responsible for Mr. Damour’s death.
The Nassau County medical examiner has not announced a cause of death for Mr. Damour, who died just after 6 a.m. on Friday, about an hour after shoppers burst through the Wal-Mart doors. Four shoppers were injured in the stampede.
Hank Mullany, the senior vice president of Wal-Mart’s Northeast division, said in a statement that the company had hired extra security officers and installed barricades before the store opened, but “despite all of our precautions, this unfortunate event occurred.”
David Tovar, a company spokesman, declined to say how many extra officers had been added on Friday. Each store, he said, made its own security arrangements. Security at the mall is handled by a subcontractor, Securitas, which patrols the parking lot but not inside the Wal-Mart, which opened in 2003 and employs more than 300 workers.
On Saturday, two security guards were posted outside the Wal-Mart, which is next to a Petland Discounts store and a National Wholesale Liquidators outlet. Workers were repairing one side of the metal door frame that was damaged on Friday.
The Wal-Mart was busy on Saturday, with long lines at the registers. Many shoppers were aware of Mr. Damour’s death and said they were appalled that people did not stop to help him as he lay on the ground, and instead surged into the store seeking bargains.
“How do you stomp somebody like that?” asked Kenny Murphy, 30, of Lynbrook, N.Y., who was shopping with his wife, Lara. “It’s disgusting how people acted yesterday.”
Wal-Mart workers interviewed on Saturday said they had been told by their managers not to speak to reporters or give their names. But they said that on Friday morning, when the store was closed for a few hours after Mr. Damour’s death, dozens of workers gathered near the front door to pray. They were led by a woman who worked as a greeter.
“It was crazy,” said a worker in the electronics department who was in the store during the stampede. “The deals weren’t even that good.”
Some of the workers said they were still shaken by Mr. Damour’s death and added that they had mixed feelings about whether the store should have hired more security.
“How could you know something like that would happen?” said one worker, who added that the store was even busier this year than on Black Friday last year. “No one expected something like that.”
Green Acres opened in 1956 on the site of the former Curtiss Wright Airport. One of the first open-air shopping centers on Long Island, it had 1.2 million square feet of retail space and counted Gimbels, J. C. Penney and J. J. Newberry among its first tenants.
In 1968, the center was enclosed and later expanded to accommodate the growing number of shoppers from Queens, Brooklyn and Long Island.
But Green Acres, which is now owned by Vornado Realty Trust, has also seen its share of trouble. In the 1980s, the mall earned a reputation as the “car theft capital” of Long Island. In 1990, four moviegoers were shot — one fatally — when two groups of teenagers opened fire in a crowded theater that was showing “The Godfather, Part III.”
Source: NYT

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