At a recent college football game at the Georgia Dome, a young University of Tennessee fan died after a 35-foot fall onto another spectator, resulting in the Tennesseean’s death and the other party’s injury. This came only a day after a similar falling death at Reliant Stadium in Houston during a preseason Texans game, and while both deaths were eventually determined to be the victims’ own fault, some have used these incidents to call for greater safety regulations at American sporting events. Before spectators are required to watch all sporting events while swaddled in a foot of shock-absorbing foam, it’s worth looking at other disastrous and often deadly accidents that have put fans and other bystanders in harm’s way.
DALLAS COWBOYS PRACTICE DOME COLLAPSE
Arenas and athletic centers topped by or made mostly out of semi-inflatable domes are a cheap and popular way to enclose a space large enough for most sports for all-weather off-season training sessions, but the larger these structures get, the more vulnerable they become to high winds, as Cowboys special teams coach Joe DeCamillis found out during a February 2009 rookie minicamp.
A heavy storm buffeted the so-called “bubble” badly enough to start the overhead lights swinging, and before the building could be evacuated, winds of near-tornado strength ripped the fabric of the roof apart, and the structure abruptly collapsed, trapping many under metal struts and heavy canvas. While the rookies were able to pry victims out from under the wreckage, 12 people were hospitalized, including DeCamillis, who nearly received a paralyzing spinal injury. The Cowboys’ video crew was able to capture the entire collapse on video:
THE FIRST ARGENTINE F1 GRAND PRIX
In 1952, charismatic Argentine president/dictator Juan Peron was in need of a new spectacle to delight and distract the jobless and poverty-stricken citizens of Buenos Aires, and the meteoric success of native sons Juan Manuel Fangio and Jose Froilan Gonzales in the exciting and deadly Formula One racing series seemed like just what the despot ordered.
Constructing the Autodromo 17 de Octubre in the swamps south of the city, Peron invited F1 governing body the FIA to survey the track accompanied by Fangio, who at the time was arguably the greatest F1 driver on the planet. The course was found acceptable (the all-encompassing view from the grandstand was remarked on as being very modern and well-designed), so it was agreed that Argentina would host its first-ever Formula One race at the very beginning of the 1953 season. Argentines rejoiced and any thoughts of protest or revolution dissolved among pre-race celebrations, but it was this very enthusiasm that would lead to tragedy.
The 16-car lineup (featuring Fangio and Gonzales in Maseratis and four other Argentine drivers in lesser cars) set out in the blistering heat and immediately ran into a unique and terrifying problem: pedestrians. As many as 400,000 of Buenos Aires’ poorest citizens had crowded the Autodromo, in many places tearing down security fences to stand at the very edge of the track. Peron allowed and to some extent encouraged this overcrowding to ensure his PR stunt would have the most effect, but for the drivers it meant navigating the twisting course between crowds of rowdy fans who edged further and further onto the track and waved shirts matador-style in front of oncoming cars traveling at close to 100 mph.
Disaster finally struck on lap 32 when a spectator darted across the track right in front the Ferrari of Nino Farina. The Italian F1 veteran instinctively swerved to avoid him but ended up skidding into a crowd of people, killing at least nine. (Official Peronista death tolls are regarded as more than a little sketchy.) Incredibly, the race continued, even after a later incident in which a British car shed a wheel that flew into the crowd and decapitated a child. To the disappointment of the surviving Argentines, neither Fangio or Gonzalez finished the race, as their Maseratis overheated in the tropical sun. Ferrari’s other driver, Alberto Ascari, won the race. Farina retired two years later, still shaken by his role in the death of innocent bystanders. Every subsequent Argentine Formula One race featured heavily-armed guards monitoring the security fences.
THE LAST MILLE MIGLIA
The Mille Miglia (Italian for “Thousand Miles”) was a legendary, open-road endurance race in which Europe’s top sports-car manufacturers honed technologies that bridged the gap between finicky high-performance Formula racers and heavier, more reliable civilian models, improving both types in the process. Drivers of many different backgrounds battled it out along a twisty and mountainous figure-eight route from Brescia to Rome and back again for just over 1,005 standard miles. Accidents were common and often lethal. Nonetheless, the race remained enormously popular and lucrative, as automakers perfected designs that later became top-of-the-line sports cars, and fans cheered on famous rivalries like Ferrari vs. Alfa Romeo, or Mercedes vs. Porsche.
One man who was less than enthusiastic was Spanish nobleman, playboy, millionaire and promising F1 and sports driver Alfonso de Portago. De Portago, his mind already occupied by juggling a complicated divorce/secret marriage/torrid affair between three different supermodels, had always considered the Mille Miglia inherently dangerous, as it was raced on unimproved country roads with little or no fencing between the cars and the excited onlookers. But Ferrari was determined to have him at the wheel of their flagship 4.2-liter coupe for the 1957 race.
Forty miles out from Brescia, the Ferrari blew a tire and slid sideways into first one group of fans before ricocheting into another, killing 10 spectators (including five children) and scissoring de Portago and American co-driver Ed Nelson in half. While the race was allowed to conclude, Enzo Ferrari was soon brought to trial for his car and company’s role in the disaster, where he was eventually able to prove that while mechanics had wished to replace the tire earlier, de Portago refused because he was unwilling to give up his position in the race. The Mille Miglia itself was banned forever, with the exception of a few low-impact commemorative races and rallies that bear its name.
THE LE MANS INFERNO
The 24 Hours of Le Mans, one of the oldest continuous racing events in the world, is an endurance event that tests manufacturers’ ability to balance overall speed and reliability, much like the Mille Miglia. Unlike the Mille Miglia (and the reason why the race continues today), it is held on a professionally designed, closed-circuit course with banked curves, well-protected grandstands and spectator seating. Le Mans drivers race in shifts, with two men trading six-hour sessions at the wheel. In 1955, however, one man was obsessed with the idea of driving and winning the entirety of the 24 Hours by himself. His name was Pierre Levegh, and his stubborn pride led to the worst motorsports disaster in history.
Levegh was a multi-talented athlete, participating in world-class tennis and hockey events, but his real passion was driving. His adopted surname was that of his uncle, an early race driver and engineer. Levegh was a Le Mans fixture, making a strong showing in several races at the wheel of French Talbot sports cars, but typically coming just short of victory due to driver fatigue.
In 1955, despite questions as to whether the 50-year-old Levegh was still fit for endurance driving, American John Fitch invited him to drive one of the new and unbelievably fast Mercedes-Benz 300SLRs, perhaps unaware of Pierre’s bizarre obsession with being the first and only man to win the 24 Hours single-handedly.
Levegh and the other 300SLRs were dominating the race early on, but Fitch and his crew couldn’t help but notice Levegh’s severe fatigue during refueling stops. Fitch practically begged Levegh to take a break and switch drivers, but Levegh ignored his advice and continued on into the third hour of the race, when his Mercedes bounced off an Austin-Healey, swerved violently to avoid a Jaguar, struck a ramp-like embankment and hurtled into the grandstands in a sudden and gigantic fireball.
Levegh was killed almost instantly, but his car (heavy with high-octane race fuel and built out of highly flammable magnesium alloy) tumbled through the spectators in a horrific fireball, shedding parts like shrapnel that hurtled even further into the stands to decapitate unsuspecting bystanders. Film of the event shows a huge chunk of hood scything through the crowd.
French firemen fighting the flames only added to the problem, as the burning magnesium reacted with the water from the hoses to burn even hotter. Horror-struck, Mercedes immediately recalled their remaining cars and withdrew from racing as a company for the next 30 years.
SINCELEJO CORRALEJA COLLAPSE
While it seems easy to imagine (at least in hindsight) that any sport involving high-speed vehicles and explosive chemicals had the possibility to end in tragedy for the onlookers, simpler and more traditional sporting events can be just as deadly, if not more so. For example, the annual “Jesus’ Sweet Name” festival held in the Colombian regional capital of Sincelejo every Jan. 20, which culminates in the building of a huge temporary bullfighting ring known as the Corraleja.
It’s enormously dangerous inside the ring itself, as many of the “bullfighters” are amateurs aiming to win bets and cash from the wealthy landowners who sponsor the event, but in 1980, the situation was reversed when the hastily-thrown-up stadium abruptly collapsed, killing 222 spectators and injuring hundreds more. The Corraleja tradition continues with somewhat better safety standards, but it’s an open question why people continue to risk their lives to watch someone stab a cow to death.
SOCCER STADIUM SMASHUPS: COLLAPSES, CRUSHES, AND CROWD CONTROL
Soccer (or “football” if you're not from America) is far and away the world’s most popular sport, but by the same token, it is also one of the most dangerous sporting events to attend in person. The enormous crowds present at any major soccer game often exceed the arena’s seating capability, and at times there can be so many people in an old and overburdened stadium that the building itself gives way.
A violent 1987 match in Tripoli led to panicking fans accidentally collapsing a wall, killing 16. In 1992, a French Cup semifinal in Corsica was tragically interrupted when a temporary grandstand collapsed, killing 17 and injuring 1,900. This phenomenon wasn’t even that new, as a game at Glasgow’s Ibrox Park in 1902 was halted by the collapse of a permanent grandstand and the death of 25 fans.
Structural failure, while dramatic, actually isn’t the deadliest problem for overcrowded soccer arenas, many of which are now engineered to support the weight of far more than their seating capacity. The most dangerous part of attending a popular soccer game is simply trying to get in and out of the stadium. Poorly designed hallways and entries have been known to compress crowds so severely that people don’t have enough room to breathe, resulting in a “crush” that can asphyxiate despite the availability of fresh ventilated air.
Ibrox Park became the site of yet another horrific disaster in 1971, when the flow of fans exiting the stadium was suddenly halted and 66 men, women, and children died. Bodies were stacked up to 6 feet deep in some parts of the stadium. While Ibrox Park and many other European fields were redesigned in the wake of the tragedy, this wasn’t enough to prevent the Hillsborough Disaster of 1989 in Sheffield, where the police failed to adequately control and direct the standing-room-only crowds of opposing Liverpool and Nottingham Forest fans, resulting in a high-pressure stream of people forced through a handful of narrow hallways and up against the “anti-hooligan fences” surrounding the pitch.
While fans were suffocating mere feet from the field, the game continued until desperate spectators scaled the fences in an attempt to find room to breathe, and the referee halted play. 96 English soccer fans were killed, and a further 766 injured in the worst stadium disaster in British history.
AN EXCESS OF TEAM AND ALCOHOLIC SPIRITS: SPORTS RIOTS
In any sport, any time there’s a particularly heated match between two fierce rivals in a large city, there’s the potential for a riot. While disturbances of various sizes have accompanied all sorts of sports (particularly anything involving Oakland), soccer is again a major offender, if only because everyone in the world plays it.
Dealing with hooliganism (as it is popularly referred to in the West) takes up an enormous amount of time and effort on behalf of the police and stadium staff, as soccer fan organizations (often referred to as “firms”) must often be kept separate from each other before, during, and as long as possible after a game to prevent massive brawls from breaking out. English hooliganism became so violent and organized that one group, the Inter City Firm supporting West Ham United, actually left calling cards on their victims reading, “Congratulations, you have just met the ICF.”
In terms of sheer numbers and atrocity, however, the ICF and other infamous football firms have a lot to learn from the developing world. The 1964 Peru-Argentina match held in Lima erupted into violence when a Peruvian goal was annulled with only two minutes left in the game. With the stadium gates locked shut by heavy padlocks, the two groups of hooligans had nothing else to do but fight each other while the police fruitlessly fired tear gas into the crowds and casual fans struggled to find space to breathe. After the gas cleared, 318 spectators were dead and countless more injured.
Lest you think this sort of violence is a relic of the past, consider the Port Said disaster of February 2012, when fans of the victorious Al-Masry soccer club stormed the field with improvised weapons, resulting in a brawl that left 79 dead and more than 1,000 wounded. Some believe that Port Said was allowed to happen by the Egyptian military government as an excuse for tighter control over civilian uprisings, but sadly, the history of soccer shows that it’s entirely possible the whole affair was just business as usual.
THE WORST OF BOTH WORLDS: THE HEYSEL STADIUM DISASTER
So far, we’ve sort of put soccer tragedies into two distinct groups: design failures of stadiums or violence on behalf of the fans. The 39 deaths and 600 injuries that occurred at Brussels’ antiquated Heysel Stadium in 1985 don’t readily fall into either category. While UEFA officials had expressed major concerns to the Belgian government over Heysel’s small size and atrociously poor maintenance record -- fans were literally able to kick holes in the crumbling cinderblock outer wall to get in -- the cause of the tragedy was ultimately found to rest on Liverpool hooligans in particular and English soccer culture in general, resulting in a five-year-ban of British teams from European soccer.
The trouble began more than an hour before kickoff of the Euro Cup Final between English Liverpool and Italian Juventus. Poor planning by stadium officials resulted in opposing groups of fans being separated by a temporary chain-link fence easily scaled by the aggressive and violent Liverpudlians.
Fearing a brawl, Juventus fans attempted to scale the stadium’s perimeter wall to escape, but the weight of the crowd caused a catastrophic collapse where most of the game’s casualties were incurred. Watching their countrymen crushed under a combination of cinderblocks and Englishmen, Juventus fans from across the field stormed the pitch, finally stirring the Belgian riot police to action.
The game was delayed, but still held, as organizers feared that a cancellation would lead to even worse violence, and Juventus FC won the match 1-0, remaining on the field until the police were able to escort them away. Belgian courts laid the blame squarely (and controversially) on the Liverpudlians. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher personally insisted that the UEFA ban English teams from European competition for an indefinite period of time. Most of England was permitted back on the Continent in 1990, but Liverpool FC had to wait an additional year before being officially forgiven.
THE CAMEROONIAN PARATROOPER INTERVENTION
A 1976 World Cup qualifier held in Cameroon’s Ahmadou Ahidjo Stadium came to an unexpected and violent end after a contested penalty kick awarded to Cameroon (by a neutral Gambian referee) resulted in a fight between the luckless ref and the enraged Congolese goalie.
Inevitably, more players were drawn in, soon followed by the fans -- it was a World Cup qualifier after all -- and Cameroon was holding the home-field advantage until their killjoy president mobilized a helicopter assault team loaded with paratroopers who landed in the middle of the pitch and fought to maintain order.
When the dust cleared, two were dead. But more controversially, the game was left unresolved. Neither team ended up making it to the World Cup, which was most likely a load off the minds of their potential rivals.
Next: When Sports Go Horribly Wrong
LA GUERRA DEL FUTBOL: THE SOCCER WAR
International sports competitions often are thought of as substitutes or placeholders for war, tensions between two countries being resolved peacefully, like during the famous USA/USSR Olympic hockey match, or virtually any sort of athletic competition involving England and France.
Rarely is the flipside considered, that tensions and passions inflamed by a heated sports rivalry can contribute to an actual armed conflict, even in light of the massive riots and fights that a contested match can lead to. It shouldn’t really surprise anyone that of all the team sports that have inspired violence and destruction, soccer remains the only one that was a contributing factor (if not the primary cause) of a modern war.
The “Football War” of 1969 was actually the result of a long-simmering territorial and ethnic dispute between the neighboring countries of El Salvador and Honduras. Salvadoran settlers on Honduran lands were often deported, exacerbating El Salvador’s overcrowding. Those who stayed behind were subject to torture and other atrocities, generating popular Salvadoran sentiment for war.
This tense situation was in no way helped by the beginning of the second North American qualifying round for the 1970 World Cup, in which the two national teams met first in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa (resulting in a 1-0 Honduran victory and a lot of fighting), again in the Salvadoran capital of San Salvador (resulting in 3-0 Salvadoran victory and even more fighting), and finally in neutral but extremely nervous Mexico City, where after a heated overtime match, El Salvador won 3-2, a victory followed almost immediately by El Salvador’s dissolution of all diplomatic ties with the Honduran government and a number of brushfire gunfights along their common border.
Less than three weeks after the game, the makeshift Salvadoran Air Force took to the skies in a surprise assault comprised of antiquated World War II fighters, trainers and airliners with rudimentary bombs strapped to their sides. The fighting lasted just over 100 hours and was settled with a cease-fire brokered by the Organization of American States after it became clear that the war would have grievous consequences for the populations of both countries.
The countries remained technically at war until 1980, and the border dispute that fueled the conflict was settled by the International Court of Justice in 1992, awarding most of the disputed territory to Honduras. The two countries have largely normalized trade and diplomatic relations, although regarding the Mexico City match, the two governments can only agree that it was one hell of a game.