Tragic echoes of Hillsborough

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The Independent Online
As the bodies of 82 soccer fans were laid out under the glare of Guatemala's Mateo Flores stadium lights yesterday, the parallels with Hillsborough were impossible to ignore.

One man who lost his two teenage daughters in the 1989 disaster in which 96 fans were crushed to death, said the latest soccer stadium tragedy "was Hillsborough all over again".

"I immediately felt anger. Will they never learn? Have people not listened to us? We predicted there would be another disaster but hoped it would never come true," Trevor Hicks, chairman of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, said.

Mr Hicks had watched helplessly as his two teenage daughters died in the crush, trapped behind the fences on the terraces of the Sheffield stadium. A large group of fans had gathered outside and clamoured to be let in. Fearing a riot, police opened the gate and allowed the group to enter an already filled terrace section, trapping fans along the fences.

First reports of the disaster on Wednesday night at the stadium where the Costa Rican and Guatemalan national teams were to compete for a berth in the 1998 World Cup in France spoke of overcrowding, a crush in a tunnel and people being trapped against pitchside fences. The echoes of Sheffield were stark.

"It came flooding back, and I felt physically sick," Mr Hicks said. "The lessons of Hillsborough haven't been learned, just as the lessons of Heysel and Ibrox haven't been learned."

Survivors' testimonies also had terrible echoes of 1989. Guatemalan and Costa Rican fans tried to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on victims, many blue and purple from apparent lack of oxygen. Bodies lay for hours inside the stadium, at least 15 children reportedly among them.

"Thoughts of a similar tragedy inflicted on our own football seven years ago still remain with us," the English Football Association's chief executive, Graham Kelly, said. "The events of that dreadful day are somehow still difficult to comprehend or accept. Now the world family of football mourns for Guatemala."

If the tragedy echoed that of Hillsborough so, too, did the mistakes. The use of fences to prevent fans getting on to the pitch was a "disgrace", the chairman of Liverpool city council's working party on Hillsborough said yesterday.

"I consider that the Hillsborough tragedy might not have been as great if they never had the fences up. If a problem develops there is nowhere for people to go," Jack Spriggs said. "In Britain, fences in major stadiums no longer exist to allow for the remote possibility of something like Hillsborough happening again, and we have also seen the introduction of all-seater stadiums."

In Britain, the inquiry after the 1989 disaster changed the face of football stadiums for ever. Lord Justice Taylor, who headed it, said inadequate responses to the "gross overcrowding" had caused the tragedy. "[Pens] were already over-full because no safe maximum capacities had been laid down, no attempt made to control entry to individual pens numerically, and there was no effective monitoring of crowd density," he said.