82 fans die in World Cup stadium crush

Guatemala City - Soccer fans stampeded before a World Cup qualifying match, crushing and smothering one another in panic in one of the worst sports tragedies in years. At least 82 people - some of them children - were killed and 127 were hurt, officials said yesterday.

President Alvaro Arzu, who witnessed Wednesday night's mayhem from a box seat at the Mateo Flores National Stadium in Guatemala City, called off Guatemala's match with Costa Rica and declared three days of national mourning.

"It's terrible! It's terrible!" said Marlon Ivan Leon, a defender for the Guatemalan national team who stood sobbing by a long row of bodies lined up on the track inside the stadium. The team's head coach, Horacio Cordero, said: "What does soccer matter now?"

The fire department yesterday said there were "82 or 83" dead and 127 injured. Victor Hugo Perez, the nation's top prosecutor, on Wednesday put the numbers at 83 dead and 180 injured.

The disaster began to unfold when angry fans kicked down an entrance door to the south stands, causing spectators inside to cascade down to the lower levels. The security forces released emergency gates to the pitch but could not relieve the crush. The game was immediately suspended.

The cordon of corpses on the stadium track, with their arms crossed across their chests, included men in T-shirts emblazoned with their country's name, a woman in Indian dress and a child, nose bloodied and head cocked. Firefighters and police cut through a chain link fence to lower the victims from the grandstands. Hundreds of shoes, pieces of clothing and bloodstains littered the seats at the south end of the stadium.

At the nearby San Juan de Dios Hospital in central Guatemala City, hundreds of relatives gathered, clamouring for news of their loved ones. From a loudspeaker at the hospital door, the names of the wounded and dead were announced, provoking howls of anguish from friends and relatives. The hospital admitted more than 80 injured, many suffering broken limbs.

Outside the hospital, dazed soccer fans fresh from the stadium, their faces still painted in patriotic blue and white, sought news of friends injured in the tragedy. Alberto Chamale, a 46-year-old construction worker, limping and disoriented, said he lost four brothers and a niece who all died near him in the crush at the south end of the stadium. He said emergency workers told him his relatives were among the bodies laid out on the field.

"The [Guatemalan soccer] federation is at fault for letting in too many people," he said.

"I was seated in the stands, but they were full," said one of the injured, Carlos Garcia, who suffered a broken leg and bruised head. "Then more people were let in. I only fled when they began to fall on top of us. I don't know anything more."

In Zurich, world soccer's governing body, Fifa, said forged tickets may have triggered the stampede. A Fifa spokesman said its delegate to the match between Guatemala and Costa Rica, Mexico's Arnoldo Levinson, had sent a preliminary report in which he spoke of fans with forged tickets causing the ground's capacity of 46,500 to be exceeded, and of spectators kicking down entrance doors which in turn forced others to spill over into the lower tiers of the stands.

While Fifa had no wish to prejudge the exact cause of the loss of so many lives, the spokesman pointed out that responsibility for safety inside and outside the stadium rested with the Guatemalan government.

A history of disasters in sport

1902 - Glasgow; 25 killed when West Stand at Ibrox Park collapses.

1946 - Bolton; 33 killed when wall collapses before an FA Cup match.

1968 - Buenos Aires; 74 killed when fans head toward a closed exit and are crushed against the doors.

1971 - Glasgow; 66 killed when barriers at Ibrox collapse during Celtic-Rangers match.

1974 - Cairo; Crowds broke down barriers and 49 trampled to death.

1982 - Moscow; 340 reportedly killed at European Cup match. Police blame fans for pushing. 1985 - Brussels; 39 killed at Heysel Stadium when riots break out and wall separating Liverpool and Juventus fans collapses.

1989 - Sheffield; 96 crushed to death when police open gates to alleviate crowding outside Hillsborough stadium.

1991 - Orkney, South Africa; 40 killed, crushed along riot-control fences when fans try to escape fighting.

1992 - Corsica; 17 killed when a temporary grandstand collapses in French Cup semi-final between Bastia and Marseille.

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