Stampede at soccer match in South Africa kills 43

Thursday, April 12th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (AP) _ Sobbing women identified relatives from among bodies lined up on a soccer field early Thursday after a stampede at a match between two of South Africa's most popular teams. Forty-three people were killed and 160 injured.

In one of the country's worst sports tragedies, thousands of fans who couldn't fit into Johannesburg's Ellis Park stadium on Wednesday night shoved and broke through the fence around the facility or climbed over gates.

Not initially realizing the seriousness of the situation, officials didn't call off the game until 10 minutes after the first body had been carried away, one fan said.

``We thought someone had fainted,'' said Abdul Patel, who spent 20 minutes in the throng outside before he managed to get in. Later, he saw at least 10 bodies being carried onto the field.

Government and soccer league officials met Thursday to look into what caused the stampede at a game between the Kaizer Chiefs and the Orlando Pirates, fierce rivals. Afterward they said their would be a full judicial inquiry and postponed all soccer matches scheduled for the weekend.

Gates leading to the stadium were closed Wednesday after it had filled to its capacity of 60,000, said Robin Petersen, chief of the Premier Soccer League, which organized the match. The thousands of fans still outside then began pushing the fence, breaking it in four places, he said.

Guards were unable to stop the crowd from pouring into the already full stands, Petersen said, and officials didn't initially realize the magnitude of the problem.

``Maybe had we responded earlier, the situation would have been averted,'' South African Press Association quoted him as saying.

Officials from the league and the South African Football Association met with Sports Minister Ngconde Balfour Thursday morning.

``If proper arrangements had put in place this never should have happened,'' Balfour told SAPA.

In addition to the 43 people killed, 160 people were injured with 89 of those admitted to the hospital, said Molefi Oliphant, president of the South African Football Association. Two of the dead were children.

More than two dozen bodies were lined up on the field Thursday, and others lay outside.

Later Thursday, relatives gathered at the mortuary to continue searching for their loved ones. Roy Nation sobbed as he left the building after identifying the body of his 11-year-old son, Roswell.

``We were shouting stop the game and everything and nobody reacted,'' he said. ``After 45 minutes they started to react.''

The mood at the stadium was spirited even before kickoff, spectators said, which is common for matches between the two teams. Things took a darker turn after the Pirates scored a goal.

``That's when everything happened,'' said security guard Louis Shipalana. ``The stadium was full. There was no place to stand.'' People pushed down the fence, he said, ``and the people in the back stepped on those in front.''

In a statement, former President Nelson Mandela said sport has been a uniting force in South Africans' lives and should continue to be so.

``We, the fans and supporters of sport, should ensure that this culture of uniting people is cherished. This incident should not divide us now but rather bring us even closer to ensure that this horror story does not repeat itself,'' it said.

The stampede wasn't the first time a game between the two teams has ended in violence. In 1991, 42 people were killed and more than 50 injured when a fight touched off a stampede at a Chiefs-Pirates exhibition game in 1991.

South Africa has made a bid to host the 2010 World Cup. Keith Cooper, a spokesman for FIFA, the sport's governing body, said Thursday that it was far too early to say if the stampede would have any impact on that petition.