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93 Killed in Soccer Game Crush : Victims Trampled at English Stadium; 200 Reported Hurt

April 16, 1989|DAN FISHER | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — At least 93 fans were crushed to death and 200 others were injured at a national soccer tournament semifinal match in central England on Saturday when thousands of spectators without tickets gained last-minute entry to an enclosed viewing section already overcrowded with paying customers.

The game at Sheffield, about 150 miles northwest of London, continued for several minutes as terrified fans trapped in the ground-level spectator terrace fought for their lives.

"We were like caged animals in a zoo," was how one survivor described the horror and frenzy of the fans as they scrambled to free themselves from the crush of humanity around them.

'Four Deep in Dead Bodies'

Dozens fell under the feet of the surging crowd and died. "It seemed as if it was four deep in dead bodies with people climbing over them," witness Stuard McGeagh said. Many of the dead were teen-agers and children, an ambulance worker said.

Some survivors managed to scale a 10-foot-high perimeter fence onto the field as police, still unaware that a tragedy was unfolding before them, ordered the fleeing spectators to go back. Scores more fans climbed onto the shoulders of friends and were lifted out of the melee by supporters in the front rows of stands above them.

South Yorkshire County Police Constable Peter Wright confirmed that 93 had died as of late Saturday, while hospital officials said that dozens of the injured were critically hurt and breathing with the aid of respirators.

Grim Catalogue of Tragedies

It was this country's worst-ever sporting disaster and another entry in a grim catalogue of British soccer tragedies.

The world's worst soccer tragedy occurred in Lima, Peru, in 1964 when more than 300 people died, most of them crushed to death against locked gates of stadium exit tunnels as they fled from rioting during an Olympics qualifying match between the teams of Peru and Argentina.

Saturday's events threw a new damper over Britain's favorite sport less than a week after the news that the Union of European Football Assns., the ruling body of European soccer, voted to lift its ban on English teams for the 1990-91 season.

The ban was imposed after a May, 1985, riot at Heysel Stadium in Brussels in which 39 people were killed during a match between Liverpool and the Italian Juventus team. Liverpool fans were blamed for that tragedy, which thrust football hooliganism to the attention of the world.

Ironically, Liverpool was at the center of Saturday's tragedy, too. But unlike what happened at Heysel, crowd violence apparently played no part in the Sheffield disaster, which occurred at a semifinal match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, the equivalent of the last round of the National Football League playoffs.

There were conflicting reports about how the overflow crowd gained entry to the area immediately behind the goal at Liverpool's assigned end of the stadium. According to one version, they streamed in through a broken turnstile; according to another they were admitted by police, who failed to check their tickets.

More People Admitted

Either way, "it seems clear that more people came into that end (of the field) than should have been in that end," said Graham Kelly, chief executive of the Football Assn., which administers professional soccer here.

At a Sheffield press conference Saturday night, Constable Wright confirmed that a senior police officer had ordered a 16-foot-wide gate to be opened at the back of the grandstand at about the same time as the surge of the crowd inside the stadium. However, he said, "I am not aware of any connection between the surge on the terrace and the gate being opened."

Wright said the decision to open the gate was made to relieve dangerous crowding among about 4,000 would-be spectators outside the stadium. "There was a danger to life outside, as perceived by the police," he told reporters. "In order to relieve the pressure on the turnstiles, the gate was opened."

Britain's Press Assn., a domestic news agency, quoted an unnamed gatekeeper as saying that he saw "several thousand people" flood through when police ordered the gate opened. "It's my opinion that opening those gates caused the tragedy," the gatekeeper was quoted as saying.

Angry Liverpool fans complained that they had been assigned an inadequate number of tickets for the contest in the first place and that police squeezed them into a smaller area than they assigned to the less numerous Nottingham Forest fans.

Anger Over Limited Space

"Why didn't they give us the big end when they knew we had more supporters?" shouted one Liverpool supporter at a British Broadcasting Corp. television cameraman.

British soccer fans are carefully segregated at matches to prevent the kind of violence that has plagued the game here for a number of years. Police routinely use dogs, mounted officers and metal detectors to weed out potential troublemakers. Entire sections of seats are regularly left empty to ensure that supporters of competing teams are kept well apart.

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