Eight people have now died after a stampede outside a game at the African Cup of Nations soccer tournament in Cameroon, as witnesses blamed security officials for errors while news footage showed fans climbing over fences earlier to bypass checks and get into the stadium.
Another seven people are in serious condition in the hospital after the crush, authorities said Tuesday.
The death toll increased after two more fans were pronounced dead outside the Messassi hospital, police said. Injured people had initially been rushed to that nearby hospital by police and civilians trying to help. The hospital quickly became overwhelmed and said it couldn’t handle all the casualties.
A total of 38 people were hurt in the stampede, which happened Monday night at the Olembe Stadium in the Cameroon capital of Yaounde. The remaining 31 people had light to moderate injuries. The injured are now being treated at four different hospitals, Communication Minister René Sadi said.
The crush came when soccer fans struggled to get into the stadium to watch Cameroon’s team play Comoros in a highly-anticipated knockout game at Africa’s top soccer tournament. The tragedy may have been connected to fans trying to avoid COVID-19 checks. Local organizers have made it compulsory that fans show proof of negative virus tests and be vaccinated against COVID-19 if they want to attend games at the African Cup. They need to go through that health screening as well as security checks at stadiums.
Local TV stations broadcast footage showing people jumping over security fences to get into the game and there are reports that police were overwhelmed. The Cameroon government said 57,000 people were at the stadium when the crowd was meant to be restricted to a maximum of 40,000 because of the virus. The Olembe has a capacity of 60,000.
A witness said the stampede at the south entrance of the stadium happened after supporters were directed by security officials toward an entrance gate that was locked. The gate was eventually opened, the witness said, causing a surge and people were trampled. Children were caught up in the stampede, the witness said.
“When the security guys finally began opening the gates, with all the anxiety and after having been locked out ... people pushed the security guys away and forced themselves inside,” said the witness, Marie-Therese Asongafack. “That’s where it all began ... By the time I found myself in front, there were people on the ground being trampled on.”
Medical help wasn’t immediately available, “so people were just trying their basic first aid on victims,” Asongafack said. “I saw a child less than 10 years old, lifeless. Guys were trying to revive him.”
World soccer body FIFA released a statement expressing its “deepest condolences” to the families and friends of the victims. FIFA president Gianni Infantino attended the African Cup’s opening ceremony at the Olembe Stadium two weeks ago.
African soccer confederation president Patrice Motsepe called an urgent news conference for later Tuesday.
Cameroon President Paul Biya ordered an investigation into the tragedy, which came a day after at least 17 people died after a fire set off a series of explosions at a nightclub in Yaounde.
The Central African nation is hosting the African Cup for the first time in 50 years and its preparations have been under scrutiny for years. Cameroon was meant to host the tournament in 2019 but that year’s event was taken away and awarded to Egypt because of serious problems with Cameroon’s preparations, especially in and around stadiums.
The Olembe Stadium, the main stadium for the tournament and the venue for the Feb. 6 final, was one of the arenas that organizers were concerned about. Games are also being played in four other cities.
Cameroon’s Minister of Public Health, Manaouda Malachie, visited the different hospitals where the injured were being treated. He said that 31 of the 38 injured people were responding well to treatment but the others were in serious condition.
On Tuesday morning, people gathered at the hospitals searching for missing family members.
“I am helpless. The police have not been of any help and I have not been able to trace my two brothers,” said Festus Ndi, a 24-year old student at the University of Yaounde.