April 11 – Ellis Park Stadium Disaster

ON this day in 2001 fans of the Orlando Pirates and Kaiser Chiefs gathered excitedly for a match between the two rivals – the biggest derby game in South Africa – at the Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg. Tragically, 43 of those fans would never return home when they were killed in a massive crush inside the ground in the worst sporting accident in the history of South Africa.

The accident was caused when an estimated 30,000 extra fans tried to cram into the already full 60,000 capacity stadium.

BBC reporter and lifelong Orlando Pirates fan Milton Nkosi was at the match to support his team in the biggest game of the season, but ended up witnessing the horrific scenes.

He said: “Ellis Park was packed to capacity 45 minutes before kick off, local music groups provided entertainment on the pitch, there was dancing and singing all around me.

“As people were taking up space on the aisle between the stands, it became more and more difficult to move. Gradually, the pushing and shoving was becoming unbearable. At first I thought it was going stop when the match began, but how wrong I was.

“Fans who were sitting on the steps down the aisle were getting more and more squashed by the incoming crowd – it was absolutely clear that there was no more room in that area. The first thing I did was stand up and see how many people were still trying to get in.

“There were thousands still coming in. I and most people who were seated near to me had to stand on our seats to avoid the crush. Those who were not quick enough were getting crushed.

“Our screams were as loud as humanly possible but the PA system and the rest of the stadium crowd just drowned out our voices. When the whistle was blown and the match began, this just fuelled the stampede. The crowd outside the stadium surged forward even more, only this time with greater force. Suddenly a few security guards and marshals were battling against a human tide.

“As if this was not enough, Kaizer Chiefs scored the first goal and all hell broke loose. Those who were still outside pushed down the stadium steel gates and rushed in to join the people who were already being squashed and crushed – they wanted to see which team had scored the first goal of the match.

“It was horrible. Together with those next to me I screamed and whistled, trying to draw the attention of the match officials to stop the game. But the noise of the rest of the crowd in the stadium who were following every pass, every tackle and every move of the ball, was just too much for them to hear our cries. They probably thought we were rooting for our teams.

“A friend tried to use a belt to deter the crowd from surging forward but he failed, dismally. I shouted to him: ‘Banzi, if we don’t get away from here we are going to be crushed to death!’

“I then started the terrifying journey that led to my survival – walking, pushing, shoving, screaming with both my feet off the ground. I had to walk on other people to save my own life. Others were pushing me away as I forced my way out of the chaos.”

Eventually the match was halted and the 250 injured and 43 dead were taken on to the pitch. The following day an inquiry was launched into the tragedy, but most blamed a combination of a lack of pre-sold tickets, and inexperienced security staff inside the ground.

South African president Thabo Mbeki said: “It is important that every element of this tragedy be looked at so that we can take all the necessary measures to make sure that we don’t have this thing happening again.”

The disaster was chillingly reminiscent of the previous worst sporting tragedy in the country’s history which occurred ten years earlier in 1991 when they same two teams met for a ‘friendly’ match at the Oppenheimer Stadium in the city of Orkney, some 200km from Johannesburg. That day the 23,000 capacity stadium was overrun by some 30,000 fans who caused a mass stampede, killing 42 people including two children.

Former Leeds United player and South African Captain Lucas Radebe played in the 1991 match for Kaizer Chiefs and he believed safety would improve as a result of the tragedies.

He said: “Things like this do happen and you do learn from them, especially in a country which always tries to get better. Things will improve. This highlights some of the problems and hopefully things like this will never happen now.

“I’m a footballer and I’ve been in that situation before. To lose the lives of supporters, especially those with young families, is a terrible thing to happen. It’s very, very bad.”

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