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Probe of Fatal S. African Soccer Stampede Underway - 2001-08-22


South African officials are holding hearings into the soccer stampede that killed 43 people in April. A panel of inquiry is trying to determine the causes of the disaster, which left more than 150 people injured. The panel is hearing testimony from soccer fans who were there the night of the disaster.

Leonard Kwinana was waiting in line for tickets when things started to go horribly wrong. He and two friends went to Ellis Park stadium in Johannesburg to see the match between the two biggest arch rivals in South African soccer the Kaizer Chiefs and the Orlando Pirates.

He said he saw people start pushing and shoving outside the stadium. And when he worked his way inside, it just got worse. Mr. Kwinana said from where he stood in line, he could see only three security guards on duty. And he said those guards fled the scene when things started to get out of control.

He responded to questions from attorney Graham Barlow, who represents the families of some of the victims.

Barlow: Now the pushing and shoving that you have testified about extensively. Did that pushing and shoving commence in the line to the ticket booth, or was it at a stage after that?

Kwinana: It commenced at that booth at a time when that window was smashed. And the security officials then removed the cashier or the lady there and fled with her from that booth.

Barlow: So would I be correct in saying that from that moment onwards, from the moment where the ticket booth was smashed and the lady removed, that after that there was no visible security to you at all?

Kwinana: Yes.

The judicial inquiry, led by Judge Bernard Ngoepe, is trying to determine who, if anyone, is to blame for the worst sporting disaster in South African history. In the aftermath of the Ellis Park stampede, analysts and spectators have blamed everyone from the stadium officials, to the South African soccer authorities, to the fans themselves.

Mr. Kwinana urged South African soccer supporters to get used to the idea of buying tickets in advance, instead of waiting until the last minute and buying them at the gate. And he urged the soccer authorities to educate fans about the practice.

At least 80,000 people showed up for the ill-fated match on April 11. Ellis Park stadium holds less than 60,000.

Mr. Kwinana, a Pirates fan, said he thought the game should have been held at the Pirates' home stadium, which holds more spectators than Ellis Park, home of the Kaizer Chiefs. But an attorney representing the South African soccer establishment, Norman Arendse, said there was no guarantee the disaster could have been avoided, even if the match had been held somewhere else. "It's all to do with organization," Mr. Arendse said, "not to do with venue."

At least 20 soccer fans are expected to testify about their experiences during the Ellis Park disaster. The hearings are likely to continue until he middle of next month.

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