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How could it happen again?

Failure to learn lessons from other stadium tragedies contributed to South Africa's worst ever sporting disaster earlier this month. Steve Turner reports.

Two weeks ago South Africa suffered its worst ever sporting disaster when 43 people died in a crowd crush during a football match at Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg.

The crush occurred when thousands of fans stormed a perimeter fence to gain access to the 60,000 capacity stadium.

Some died as the fence collapsed on top of them as people tried to climb over it. Others died in the north east corner of the stadium as overcrowding led to panic and people were trampled in the rush to escape.

As the facts started to sink in stadium safety experts this week asked why the South African football authorities had failed to implement recommendations enforced in the UK following the 1989 Hillsborough disaster in Sheffield.

In South Africa, Ellis Park officials were trying to avoid blame for the tragedy. But British experts said responsibility lay firmly with the event organisers.

Sports stadiums in the UK changed forever in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster, nearly 12 years before events at Ellis Park.

At Hillsborough, 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death after police opened a perimeter gate allowing thousands to pour down a tunnel leading to an already packed area of terracing.

After the disaster The Guide to Safety at Sports Grounds, more commonly known as the Green Guide, was completely revised leading to changes including terrace design, fencing details and crush barrier specifications.

Sam Thorburn, a past president of the Institution of Structural engineers who worked on revising the Green Guide, expressed this week his anguish at yet another disaster.

He said all the information needed to prevent such disasters was in the guide, but that football's international governing bodies had failed to adopt its recommendations.

'We've learnt so much out of our experiences in the UK we need to share it globally. The rules of safety do not just apply to the UK, ' he said.

The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) has its own stadium safety guides. But John De Quidt, chief executive of the Football Licensing Authority (FLA), said that although they were influenced by the Green Guide they were less detailed.

The first paragraph of the 250 page Green Guide states that 'The guide will provide guidance as to how many people can be safely accommodated in a ground'. It then says that when this figure is established 'in no circumstances should a larger number be admitted'.

In the Hillsborough and Ellis Park tragedies this golden rule was broken as thousands of ticketless fans gained access to the stadium.

Football grounds in the UK now have electronic counters that register how many fans enter a certain area of the stadium, allowing managers to monitor potential problems.

South African sports minister Ngconde Balfour admitted:

'There were more supporters than the stadium could hold.'

A judicial inquiry has this week been announced in South Africa by president Thabo Mbeki.

But Ellis Park chief executive George Stanson sought to excuse stadium management of blame for the tragedy.

He said that his staff could not be held responsible for fans forcing entry into the ground, saying they were responsible for crowd control, not riot control.

'There are certain things we cannot do - like fire rubber bullets, ' said. He explained he had chaired a meeting earlier in the week, with police and army chiefs, insisting all measures had been taken to avoid such a disaster.

But the FLA's De Quidt dismissed Stanson's claims, saying that preparations for a sporting event cannot be looked at in terms of isolated events.

Speaking at a recent conference on crowd management at major events, De Quidt emphasised the importance of an integrated approach that considers every aspect of a stadium together, including location, amenities, safety equipment and personnel.

He emphasised that the unpredictable nature of human behaviour in unexpected situations could not be governed by rules and required an effective system of safety management.

The Green Guide states that the responsibility for spectator safety lies with the stadium management and that successful safety management requires an integrated approach from all parties, including stadium management and the emergency services.

It points out the importance of a risk assessment carried out by a competent person 'to encourage the formulation of practical and systematic action plans to reduce the level of risk to spectators'.

The game at Ellis Park was between the two biggest football teams in South Africa - the Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates - fighting for the league title. Previous games between the two had resulted in similar trouble, and there had been rioting at last season's match.

Fans had also climbed perimeter fences and stampeded into the ground at a game involving the Pirates two years ago.

Although there were no serious injuries, the warning signs were evident.

In the event of an incident the Green Guide stresses the importance of stadium specific 'structured and graduated' contingency plans. It says these should be practised at least once a year.

At Ellis Park rescuers and ambulances were unable to get to dying fans, because access routes into the stadium were blocked by people. The only means of removing the injured was by helicopters landing on the pitch.

Ticketing arrangements in South Africa are totally different to those of the UK as outlined in the Green Guide.

In the UK all big games are now ticket only with no tickets on sale on the day.

In South Africa however, there is no tradition of buying tickets in advance and most people pay on entry to matches.

Reports from Ellis Park have also suggested that too many tickets were sold, and gate stewards were taking bribes to let tickets fans in.

Stanson insisted the rumours were wrong, and that only 57,000 tickets had been sold, 11,000 before the day of the game and the rest at the stadium on the night. In the end it was estimated that there were up to 90,000 in the stadium.

South African Football Association president Molefi Oliphant said that the culture of fans turning up late and paying on the night had to change.

Events on the night

Forty three soccer fans died and hundreds were injured in South Africa's worst ever sporting disaster earlier this month at Johannesburg's Ellis Park stadium.

Thousands of fans rioted after being locked out of the derby match between Soweto rivals Kaizer Chiefs and the Orlando Pirates, when it kicked off at 8pm on 11 April.

The 3m high metal perimeter fencing surrounding the stadium was crushed under the weight of people trying to get into the stadium 15 minutes into the game, killing fans underneath it.

Thousands then poured into the already packed stadium. As they emerged from the vomitary tunnels into the two level, all seater stand fans were forced forward and down the 2m wide gangway running between the seats. Many were trampled trying to escape the crush.

Seated fans were crushed as they tried to scramble forward, destroying rows of seats. Some spectators in the upper tier were forced forward against the parapet wall before falling to their deaths onto the tier below.

The game was abandoned after 33 minutes, and bodies laid out on the pitch.

There is still confusion about the number killed.

Disasters at football grounds

1902 Ibrox 26 deaths Bolton 33 deaths

1971 Ibrox 66 deaths

1982 Moscow 340 deaths

1985 Bradford 56 deaths

1986 Heysel 39 deaths

1989 Hillsborough 96 deaths

1992 Bastia 17 deaths

1996 Guatemala 78 deaths

2000 Zimbabwe 12 deaths

2001 Ellis park 43 deaths

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