Ninety-three people were crushed to death and more than 200 were injured Saturday when thousands of soccer fans surged into a stadium in northern England at kickoff time and trampled other spectators in an overcrowded grandstand, officials said.
The worst disaster in British sports history occurred at the beginning of a semifinal playoff game at Hillsborough soccer stadium in Sheffield, 150 miles north of London.Spokesmen for the South Yorkshire police and ambulance services told United Press International that 93 people were killed and added that Sheffield's two major hospitals were treating more than 200 injured fans, mostly young men.
The disaster occurred just after 3 p.m. at the English Football Association semifinal match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, the equivalent of the last round of the National Football League playoffs. The game was called off because of the catastrophe.
Witnesses said the trouble in the stands began about seven minutes into the match when late-arriving fans pressed into the already crowded section reserved for Liverpool fans and triggered a surge of bodies.
Those already standing inside were crushed up against a spike-topped railing at the front designed to keep spectators from getting onto the playing field. The gate eventually collapsed.
"It seemed as if it was four deep in dead bodies with people climbing over them," witness Stuart McGeagh said.
The roots of the disaster were apparent in television scenes of a dense crowd that could be seen trying to make its way through turnstiles at a narrow entrance to the stadium, which can hold about 54,000 people.
Chief Constable Peter Wright told a news conference that an officer opened a 16-foot gate and let the surging crowd inside the stadium to avoid problems with the crowd outside. Officials at the entrance apparently were not aware the stands were already overcrowded.
"There was a crush of people, about three to four thousand, who could not get into the ground (fast enough) to reduce the rush," Wright said. "The police action that followed was to save injury and life as it was perceived by the officers at the scene."
He said, however, that he could not see a direct link between the decision to open the gate allowing the crowd inside and the disaster in the stands.
Well before the game South Yorkshire police knew they had to mount a major crowd control effort, and dozens of police were assigned to the game, aided by officers on horseback in their efforts to control the spectators.
Witnesses said the late-arriving fans rushed forward to see the game after police allowed them through the gate at kickoff time. Hundreds of fans climbed over a 7-foot-high fence onto the field to avoid the crush.
"Some people were getting impatient and police just opened the gates to let them in," said Liverpool fan Peter McGuiness. "Obviously there was a huge crush and people climbed over the fence to avoid it."
Dr. Glyn Phillips said police allowed fans to fill the middle of the Liverpool cheering section until they were crammed in like sardines.
The emergency facilities at the field were inadequate to deal with the disaster, Phillips said. One oxygen tank given to him to help resuscitate a man was empty.
Other witnesses descibed "sheer mayhem" at the stadium during the rush, which was not immediately realized by the Notingham supporters in the stand at the other side of the field.
On the field, so many died and so many others were injured that those who were just exhausted or in shock were left for a time on the grass.
Players were led off the field as officials and bystanders rushed to aid the injured, who were carried to ambulances on makeshift stretchers, some with jackets covering their heads.
Another 200 police reinforcements were called in after the incident. Groups of bewildered spectators stood around in tears as the extent of the disaster became clear.
The Football Association ordered an inquiry. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Home Secretary Douglas Hurd asked for a formal investigation.
Maurice Roworth, chairman of the Nottingham Forest team, called for the proceeds from the match to be given to victims' families.
"This is the saddest day football has ever witnessed," he said. "It is going to take a long time for football to recover."
The disaster was the worst in British soccer history. In 1971, 66 people died in a crush at the end of a match at Ibrox stadium in Glasgow. A fire at the main grandstand in Bradford City, 30 miles northeast of Sheffield, killed 54 fans in May 1985.
Liverpool also was involved in the May 1985 Heysel Stadium riot in Brussels, Belgium, when 39 fans were killed after British fans stormed a section of the stadium filled with Italians before the European Cup championship.
Most of the victims were crushed by a brick stadium wall that collapsed when the Italians pushed against it to avoid the British fans.
Saturday's disaster brought memories of the Heysel tragedy flooding back for Liverpool's players, officials and fans.
"Having twice in four years seen dead bodies on terraces, I am totally numb and shocked," said Peter Robinson, the team's chief executive.
English clubs were banned indefinitely from European tournaments because of the Brussels riot, but they are due to be allowed back in 1990.
Italy's soccer federation chief, Antonio Matarrese, said Saturday that the Sheffield tragedy raised grave questions about the European Football Union's decision to let English clubs return.
"This terrible tragedy, which shocks us today, offends not only our conscience but also that of a country like England, which wanted to make up for that dramatic page of soccer history," he said.