Fear and football: Stampede taints UVA victory
Euphoria turned to terror on Saturday night, October 15, when a fence collapsed and dozens of fans were trampled as they attempted to rush the Scott Stadium field after the Cavaliers' 26-21 victory over the Florida State Seminoles.
"Incredible force" is how UVA fourth year Ben Milam describes the experience. He and a group of friends had watched the game from The Hill, the grassy bank behind the north goalpost, a traditional spot for students. But after a Cav interception late in the game, the win seemed assured, Milam says, so he and three friends made their way to the bottom of the slope to be ready for the victory charge.
Milam's friend Michael Behr (a Hook intern) joined him, and says he knew immediately that something was going wrong.
"I could feel the pressure start to mount," says Behr, who was in the fourth row behind a chain-link fence separating the fans from the field. "The air pocket got smaller and smaller," says Behr. "It felt like you were being crushed."
Though Behr says he once rushed the field– after a victory against Virginia Tech during his first year– the pressure "usually doesn't build that fast– people have time to jump the fence." This time, however, "People didn't have time," says Behr. "The fence gave way, and the first four rows of people fell."
At 6'3", Behr says he believed he'd be able to handle any pushing and shoving a crowd could give. That was not the case.
"I fell forward on top of other people," he recalls. "You could hear people screaming and yelling for people to back up. People were running on top of the people on the ground."
Milam, who'd made it all the way up to the second row, says he, too, was surprised by the power of the crowd. "The onslaught and pressure pushed the fence down," he recalls, "and we were pushed down with it."
While stampedes are an uncommon occurrence at sporting events in the United States, soccer fans in other countries know the danger well.
One of the most deadly sporting stampedes occurred in 1982 at a soccer match in the Luzhniki stadium in Russia. Newspaper reports at the time claimed up to 340 had perished, though the Russian government put the death toll at 66. Hundreds– if not thousands– of people have perished during stampedes since then.
In America, music venues are more common sites for stampedes, as was the case in February 2003 when 21 people were killed and at least 50 injured as they attempted to leave a second-floor Chicago nightclub after security guards used mace to break up a fight.
Particularly vulnerable during stampedes are children accompanying their parents at sporting events, concerts, or religious gatherings. Earlier this month, 11 people– three of them children– died during a stampede at a stadium in South Korea. And in Baghdad in August, nearly 1,000 Shiite pilgrims died following a crowd stampede on a bridge.
Milam says he'd heard about crowd stampedes but hadn't fully understood the danger. His experience, he says, taught him a lesson.
"You don't have control of the situation," he says. "Your life-and-death instincts kick in."
As the crowd surged down the hill at Scott Stadium, stadium security and onlookers screamed for the crowd to stop and tried to push people back, but by the time authorities gained control, says UVA Police Sergeant Melissa Fielding, 12 people had been injured seriously enough to require medical treatment.
"After it was all over, there was girl on the fence shaking, and paramedics were coming to get her," says Behr, who was not injured. "I saw a guy pulled out of the fence crying."
Milam's pants were ripped, and he sustained a minor cut on his leg. No injuries were life threatening.
Rushing the field is a rare occurrence at UVA, but it is nonetheless a long-standing tradition after unexpected or particularly significant Cavalier victories.
Athletic director Craig Littlepage hopes it's a tradition that won't continue. Four days after the incident, Littlepage sent an email to UVA students and fans, reminding them that the field is for players and other game personnel– not for fans.
"I ask for your continued support for all of our teams," he wrote. "We cannot, however, allow another situation to occur as it did on Saturday night. The injuries and the fear experienced by so many are not worth the brief thrill that might have come from being in a restricted area on the field."
In an interview, Littlepage says he hopes his letter will start a dialogue between administration, sports officials, and fans. "What we're trying to do is establish expectations, and some semblance of order. There's no place for fans to be on the field, but I think everyone acknowledges that you can't keep fans off the field 100 percent of the time."
Milam and Behr say they would storm the field again– they just wouldn't rush to do it.
"I will not be in the first wave of people on there," says Milam. "It's sort of scary."
In the endzone, celebration and fear.
PHOTO BY BEN MILAM
Thousands of fans stormed the Scott Stadium field.
DAN ADDISON/U.VA. NEWS SERVICES