From the archives: 93 Killed in Soccer Game Crush

Los Angeles 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 TragediesIt 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 AdmittedEither 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.

Wright said that 800 officers were on hand for Saturday’s game.A spokesman for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said that she was shocked by videotapes of the incident shown on television and “shared everyone’s disbelief as the mounting horror unfolded.” She called for an urgent report on the tragedy.

Film taken by BBC outside Sheffield’s Hillsborough stadium before the start of Saturday’s match showed throngs of fans struggling with police and each other to get inside. Some could be seen climbing over a brick wall to get inside. The facility is one of the country’s biggest, with a capacity of 54,000, but that was clearly not enough to satisfy all those who wanted to see Saturday’s game.

Supports Twisted Like PretzelsInside, several crowd control barriers built into the viewing terrace collapsed, their sturdy supports twisted like pretzels by the press of humanity.

The contest was halted after six minutes of play when enough Liverpool fans managed to escape onto the field to disrupt the game. As police and league officials began to fathom the depth of the tragedy, the call went out for emergency aid.At one point, virtually every ambulance in the entire county of South Yorkshire was reported at the scene.Medical personnel tried to resuscitate injured fans on the playing field, while spectators tore down advertising billboards along the perimeter of the stands for use as makeshift stretchers. Shirts were draped over the faces of the dead as they were carried away.

“Many people came away covered in blood,” said John Alley, a free-lance journalist interviewed from the stadium by Britain’s Independent Television News.

‘Should Have Been Stopped’"Many people reported that some fans appeared to be dead under their feet. . . . The annoying part about this was that the game was allowed to carry on while people were fighting for their lives. The game should have been stopped almost immediately (when) that problem was spotted by the police.”

A teen-age boy described the death of the man next to him: “I was up against the bar, right at the front,” he told a British television interviewer. “There was a gentleman on me arm. And he said: ‘You’re choking me. You’re choking me.’ And he just fell. He just fell and that was the last of him.”

“People were collapsing and people were trying to push others out of the way to help those on the floor,” said survivor Thomas Byrne, 37. Speaking to the Press Assn. from his hospital bed, Byrne added: “People were being sick. People were shouting for help to those at the front to open the gates (in the perimeter fence) to let them be dragged out, but it seemed so slow in opening the gates.”

Byrne, who vowed never to attend another soccer game, said that he had no idea how he had gotten out alive. “One lad was trying to help me saying: ‘Keep your head up; don’t go down.’ There was no part of your body that could move apart from your head.”

“People were just crushing in. There was a lad and his girlfriend and they were just screaming. His words were, ‘Please God, help me,’ and I believe the girl died. Her face was just blue,” an unidentified fan told Yorkshire Television.

Gasping for Breath, WeepingRescuers finally used wire cutters on the perimeter fence to allow fans to flee onto the field. Many of those who escaped the crush collapsed onto the grass, gasping for breath and weeping. Friends and relatives who had lost each other in the frenzy embraced in tears when reunited in safety.

For many minutes, Nottingham Forest fans were apparently unaware of what was going on at the other end of the field. Their full-throated, partisan chants could be heard in the background as Liverpool fans and emergency personnel scrambled to help the injured.

A police line at least three men deep deployed across the width of the field to keep rival supporters apart and ensure that the tragedy would not be compounded by rioting.

Britain’s worst previous soccer tragedy occurred in January, 1971, at Glasgow, when 66 people were killed and more than 170 others were injured after a barrier collapsed.In May, 1985, 53 people died when a stand caught fire in Bradford City, and 33 were killed in March, 1946, at Bolton when barrier and a wall collapsed.