IT IS KNOWN AS THE MOSH PIT, THE sweaty, surging mass of young fans who crowd to the stagefront at rock concerts, leaping up and down, body-surfing on a wave of extended arms, slamming their bodies against each other in apparently heedless zeal. On this night, at New York City's Roseland, the area roils with scores of avid moshers as the Brooklyn-based band Life of Agony begins its dense, driving rock. Within minutes the air is thick with flailing limbs, torn clothes and animal grunting. Fans are plucked off their feet and sent soaring above the crowd. Then, just as suddenly, they are dropped to the floor.

It looks violent—and it is. But moshing has become an essential part of a night out for club kids and concertgoers nationwide, whether the venue is a tiny nightspot featuring local groups or a stadium with shows by megabands such as Pearl Jam and Nine Inch Nails. "People don't understand the rush," says Jesse Tooker, 18, breathless during the Life of Agony concert. "You feel so angry when you mosh. It's like you're on drugs but you're not." His friend Jason Beck, 17, who says he has lost teeth and was once kicked unconscious after surfing over the heads of the crowd, claims the pit fosters a feeling of unity—"You're all one. If you fall down, they pick you up."

Sometimes, though, the helping hand never arrives. Although reliable statistics are not available, concert observers agree that the past three years have seen a rise in serious injuries that is focusing new attention on the mosh pit. Next month in New York City, Brooklyn nightclub bouncer James Gheida, 40, is scheduled to stand trial for manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide in connection with the first American moshing fatality—the death of 18-year-old Christopher Mitchell, who fractured his skull at a Life of Agony concert in 1994. (Gheida, who is accused of throwing Mitchell from the stage onto the dance floor, has pleaded not guilty.) In similar accidents that year, mechanic Brian Cross, now 24, of Essex, Md., and honor student Jeremy Libby, 16, of Pitts-field, Maine, broke their necks and are now confined to wheelchairs.

Yet according to whistle-blowing Chicago concert-safety expert Paul Wertheimer, 47, many club owners, despite soaring insurance rates, still are not taking simple precautions—such as padded stage barriers or a ban on alcohol—to help prevent injuries. "There is no protection for fans who mosh," he says. "The rock industry, knowing the danger, has taken no move to make it safer."

Christopher Mitchell's parents hadn't even heard of mosh pits until Dec. 17, 1994, when their only child telephoned at 12:40 a.m. from L'Amour Club in a warehouse section of Brooklyn. "Ma, I'm still here," he told registered nurse Gabriella Mitchell, 45, who answered the phone at their house in Pearl River, N.Y., 20 miles north of New York City. Earlier in the evening, Christopher had borrowed $20 and the family's Buick Century to drive to the concert with four friends. "The band hasn't come on yet," he told Gabriella over the phone. "If we come home now, we're all going to lose money on our tickets. Please, please, can I stay?" She told him he could. "Thanks, Mom," said Christopher. "I love you."

Gabriella and her husband, Mike Mitchell, 45, who parks and loads planes for American Airlines, weren't worried about their son, who stood 6' and weighed 185 lbs. Christopher, a senior at Pearl River High School, worked part-time as a Shop Rite cashier and played guitar in a local band called Tribal Noyse. He talked of joining the armed forces or applying to college in California after graduation. "He was a regular kid," says Mike. "He wasn't an angel who never went out, [but] he didn't do anything we didn't do at his age."

Accounts of what happened to Christopher at L'Amour vary, but police reports say that he was separated from his friends shortly after they arrived. Life of Agony bass player Alan Robert describes the rowdy crowd that night as "pretty typical for Brooklyn," with "lots of slam dancing." Christopher, who allegedly had been drinking, climbed onto the stage and jumped into the crowd—a daring, adrenaline-fueled moshing move known as stage diving. He apparently tried to repeat the maneuver when, according to a friend, he was tossed to the floor by a bouncer on the stage. The friend later identified Gheida as the bouncer, though Gheida insists he wasn't even onstage. "I didn't do it," he says. Another observer says Christopher dived for a second time on his own.

No one, however, disputes that Christopher landed headfirst on the dance floor. Surgeons at Victory Memorial Hospital in Brooklyn, where he was taken by ambulance, operated to relieve pressure on his brain. At noon, Christopher was transferred to Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan, where he died from head trauma on Dec. 19. In an attempt to escape constant reminders of their son, the Mitchells relocated 10 miles away to the town of Congers, N.Y., but their pain is still acute. "He was only a kid," says Mike.

Safety experts agree that such serious accidents could be prevented if concert promoters installed permanent seating to reduce the size of mosh pits and beefed up security to stop high-risk activities like stage diving and crowd surfing. Danger, though, is part of the trend's appeal. Dean Grose, medical coordinator for Event Medical Services, which provides first aid at California concerts, recalls watching fans emerge "bruised and bleeding"—yet happy—from punk rock shows starting in the late '70s. "It was a badge of accomplishment for them," he says. "Kids come to the concerts to have a good time, to express themselves and to interact with the artists. That's been going on since concerts began and it will continue. It just requires responsible behavior."

And that includes bands taking some responsibility for the safety of fans. Last summer, the popular group the Beastie Boys began distributing leaflets warning that "real people really do get really hurt." (Among other dangers, the band pointed to sexual groping in the pit, a frequent complaint of women fans.) For months after Chris Mitchell's death, members of Life of Agony made announcements before many shows to discourage stage diving. But at their gig last month at Roseland, they made no announcement, and the mosh pit churned with body surfers. "We feed off the crowd, and the crowd feeds off us," says bassist Robert. "The crazier it gets, the better the show goes." Unless, that is, the show veers violently out of control.

PATRICK ROGERS
LIZ MCNEIL in New York City and MICHELE KELLER in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Liz McNeil,
  • Michele Keller.