S. Africans seek to sort events surrounding soccer stampede

Many fans were unaware that a crushing crowd was rushing the stadium

April 13, 2001|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - South Africans tried yesterday to understand what went wrong at a Johannesburg soccer match Wednesday night when 43 people were crushed to death during a stampede by thousands of fans trying to enter the overflowing stadium.

"Why? Why? Why?" asked the headline in Johannesburg's main daily newspaper, the Star, beneath a photo of a long row of shoeless victims' bodies laid out on the soccer field.

As the nation mourned the deaths yesterday, with grieving relatives still identifying bodies, South African President Thabo Mbeki launched an official inquiry into what is being called the nation's worst sports disaster.

The stampede occurred at a nationally televised game at Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg between the country's top two soccer teams and fiercest rivals: the Kaizer Chiefs and the Orlando Pirates. Thousands of fans who couldn't get into the packed 60,000-seat stadium gathered outside the stadium gates just before the 8 p.m. kickoff. As the crowd swelled to 15,000, fans started breaking through entry gates or climbing over fences.

"They were eager to be inside," said Thulani Mncube, an Orlando Pirates fan who entered the stadium about one hour before the chaos began. He sat in a general seating area, where he noticed that the stadium was more crowded than he had ever seen it.

Most people did not see the wave of fans pushing into the stadium, he said. About 20 minutes into the game, the first reports of injuries came in. By 8:30, authorities stopped the game so medics could tend to the injured.

"People didn't understand why they were stopping the game. They didn't know what was happening outside," Mncube said.

The disaster then began to unfold before the spectators and television viewers. Injured fans were laid out on the soccer field one after another. A medical helicopter landed inside the stadium to fly out the most seriously injured.

By the time authorities were able to assess the scale of the calamity about midnight local time, 43 people were confirmed dead and 160 people were injured. Eighty-nine people were taken to the hospital.

Officials of the Premier Soccer League, which organized the match, refused to speculate yesterday on what caused the disaster, leaving the investigation to a government commission.

"Quite clearly something went wrong. And it is not for us at this point to be able to determine what exactly did go wrong," said Robin Petersen, chief executive officer of the Premier Soccer League, during a conference in Johannesburg.

According to ticket sales, the game was not sold out. Of the 60,000 tickets available, 57,140 had been sold, according to South African soccer officials. But they could not explain what caused the chaos outside the gates.

Many of the tickets were sold at the door. But Kaizer Motaung, managing director of the Kaizer Chiefs, said that fans become upset if they travel to a match and are unable to get in.

"When they get frustrated, obviously they will push and they will try to get entry forcefully," he said.

Wednesday night's disaster may spoil South Africa's hopes to play host to the World Cup in 2010. Last year, South Africa was a finalist for the 2006 World Cup but narrowly lost to Germany.

The calamity was the second in a decade to strike the Chiefs-Pirates rivalry. In 1991, a fight at one of their exhibition games set off a stampede in which 42 people were killed and more than 50 injured.

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