In 1989, the FA Cup semifinal between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest drew a sellout crowd to the Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield, England.
Attempting to keep fans of the two sides from interacting with each other and hooliganism from marring the day, officials decided that Liverpool supporters would get the smaller end of the stadium, and a combination of poor layout and only seven turnstiles open for the 10,000-plus ticketed fans for the standing-room terrace sections.
The scene was chaotic as fans tried to enter, and a police officer later told investigators that ‘he thought somebody was ‘going to get killed here’ unless the exit gates were opened to alleviate the pressure. Roger Marshall may have been right about that, but opening the exit gates led to a mass of people moving into the stadium, where the signage directing fans where to go was poor, and in the resulting crush, 96 people died.
It took nearly three decades for the blame for the incident to appropriately be placed on the police’s mistakes, after the cops had blamed Liverpool fans for the deadly stampede, the worst disaster at a sporting event Britain has ever seen.
We’re lucky today not to have a death toll associated with the Nationals-Padres game of July 17, 2021. But there still are major questions that need answers about how we handle emergency situations at full stadiums.
Tony Deyo is a New York-based comedian, and was at the game in Washington with his wife and 7-year-old son, down the right field line on the lower level. They heard the gunfire that broke out on South Capitol Street, but did not know what was happening.
“We thought a storm might be coming, like, on my phone I kept getting lightning alerts,” Deyo told Deadspin. “When I was looking at the radar, it kind of looked like we might get rain. And the way I remember it, we saw people running over, across the way. I thought maybe they knew more about rain coming than I did. We did hear what we thought were fireworks, but being in Astoria for the last month, it barely registered, like, yeah, whatever. But I did see people running, so it was like, oh, maybe they know rain’s coming down. Then you see the field clear, like, oh, nobody is out on the field anymore, which should have been weirder than it was because even if rain’s coming, they’re going to start pulling out tarps and stuff.”
The grounds crew was not coming onto the field. The Padres were not coming onto the field for the bottom of the sixth inning. It was just an odd scene, with some people in the park running for cover, including those being helped into the Padres dugout by Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr., while others had no information about what was going on at all.
So, we’re like, okay, we should probably get going. And we walked up the stairs. My brother and his daughter were with us as well, and we said bye to them. They went left, we started to go right. And that’s when we kind of heard the commotion. You just saw, like, a mass of people running at us, and honestly, to me, it was like, when you watch clips of the running of the bulls in Pamplona. It looked like right before you see the bulls, where people are just running. They were coming down the concourse, and so we got out of the way and up against the side wall, and kind of behind a column, which felt safe. I didn’t know what was going on — I didn’t think I’d heard gunshots, so I couldn’t figure out why people were panicking and stampeding. So, I was curious about what was going on, and why do I not know what’s going on?
In addition to a wall of people coming their way, the Deyos noticed that the concession stands had all slammed their gates shut, not something that would happen if there was going to be a rain delay. Finally, they got some word-of-mouth information from a stadium worker, who said there was an “incident outside.”
“So, we actually went into the men’s room and all just stayed in there,” Deyo said. “There was a man that opened the door and said, come in here. So we went in, and there’s just a bunch of people hanging out. And the kids went into a stall, and we waited, and it felt like a long time before we heard any announcements. The first announcement we heard was that the incident was outside the stadium, and please stay in the stadium for now. We heard that a couple more times. And then it just seemed like things calmed down and they said we could exit either center field or right field. So, we left, and everyone was pretty calm at that point, and left the stadium without any other incident.”
It was only in the men’s room that the Deyos got word of what it was that the commotion was about. While a message was posted on the jumbotron by 9:39 p.m., informing fans that the “incident” was outside the stadium and to please remain inside, that was only useful to people who hadn’t fled for the concourses and other stadium areas. To reach the men’s room, it took a text message at 9:44 from a friend who wanted to check in, and could at least share that people were being advised to remain in the ballpark, and that news reports were of either an active shooter outside the stadium, or firecrackers.
Nobody in the park had ever been in any danger from what unfolded outside the third base gate, but not knowing that led to an incredibly dangerous situation inside the stadium.
“It just feels like if we were in front of that, we would have gotten trampled, and we just sort of luckily had enough time to see it coming and get out of the way,” Deyo said. “People outside had heard about it for a while before they gave us any information inside. A lot of people, small space, and nobody knows what’s going on. And then you just see other people panicking.”
And that’s just on the field level. In a situation like this, in a packed stadium, there’s even more danger with a crush of people trying to get down from higher tiers via ramps, stairs, and escalators. If it feels like it’s largely a stroke of luck that dozens of injuries or worse didn’t happen on Saturday night, that’s because it probably is.
On the other side of the country on Saturday, the LAPD was able to send push notifications to people, based on the location of their phones, that they should leave the area of a protest or risk arrest (or being shot by rubber bullets while posing no threat to anyone, because the LAPD is just that awful). If they can do that, surely there’s a way to get word out to people in a ballpark with crucial and timely information during an emergency.
If you show up long enough before a game, you might see the jumbotron video explaining all of a stadium’s evacuation procedures, but shouldn’t there be a button to be pushed in the scoreboard booth that lets people know, quickly, whether to stay in their seats, or run animations of the best evacuation routes, if necessary?
We shouldn’t have to count on safety coming down to baseball players leading fans into a dugout, or kids relying on what they’ve learned in the active shooter drills that have become a grim reminder of the reality of the messed-up country we live in. Information and solutions need to come from the top down.
It was a failure of leadership that caused the Hillsborough tragedy. We’re lucky today not to be sorting one out in Washington.