NEW YORK (AP) _ It was billed as a star-studded benefit with rappers playing basketball for an AIDS education fund-raiser. It became a nightmare with eight people dead, crushed by a stampeding crowd in a stairway turned killing ground.

Good cheer evolved into morbid fear Saturday night inside the City College gymnasium, where fans became fatalities, rap stars turned emergency workers, and a basement floor served as a makeshift morgue.

''Girls were screaming, guys were screaming,'' said Sy Collins, one of the first Emergency Medical Service workers on the scene. ''A friend of the biggest guy who died was crying. He looked at me and said 'My friend's dead, man.'''

The crowd had begun arriving at 3 p.m. for the benefit basketball game three hours later. Fans who paid $12 a ticket to see stars like Heavy D, Big Daddy Kane and Boyz II Men stood outside in an orderly fashion.

The doors opened at 5 p.m. and the gym was quickly packed to its capacity of 2,730, with former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson and rap star L.L. Cool J among the crowd.

But several hundred people - most of them apparently without tickets - remained queued up outside the building's six glass doors.

''The crowd was big and uncontrollable. They kept pushing and pushing,'' said Oscar Davis, 32, of the Bronx.

The game was delayed.

But the pushing and jostling continued until about 7 p.m., when someone smashed one of the glass doors and a crush of people flooded inside. People began pouring down a 12-foot-wide staircase leading to the gym, only to find the door leading inside was not open.

''People started fainting on the steps,'' said Shannon Thomasson, 15, who was in the unticketed crowd that swept inside. ''It was really messed up.''

Joie Binns, 16, watched in fear as people began climbing over the bodies in front of them. The crowd surged forward, trapping the people ahead against the door and the walls.

''People kept coming in, coming in. That's when people were packed in like sardines,'' said Randy Jones, 30, of the Bronx.

Event organizers began letting people in through the door, but the people couldn't get inside fast enough.

''They would let four in at a time, and two would faint,'' said Jones.

The crush from behind continued unabated; one eyewitness saw 20 people collapse on the gym floor. In the stairway, people were piled on top of one another. Keenan Gray, 20, of Queens, had three people beneath him and two on top.

Inside, the fans wondered what the delay was in starting the game, until an announcement over the public address system said the game was called off because three people had died just a few feet away.

EMS workers tending to the battered and bruised victims spread out across the gym floor received help from two of the stars inside: Heavy D and L.L. Cool J. Heavy D later announced plans for a concert to benefit the victims' families.

In an eerie tableau, emergency workers were carrying out injured fans on stretchers while kids in the gym scrambled for autographs and posed for pictures with their favorite rappers.

''Trying to get their autographs while people are dying.... The city is really going to hell. People don't care,'' Victor Black, 27, said outside the gym. ''It's a sad reflection on what the city is becoming.''