BY KUNLE SOLAJA
Forty-one years ago on this date, 13 August, the first recorded crowd tragedy in a sporting arena in Nigeria occurred.
Twenty four people were reported dead while hundred others were injured in the aftermath of stampede that took place after a semi-final Challenge Cup match involving IICC Shooting Stars of Ibadan and the Bendel Insurance of Benin.
IICC Shooting Stars won the tension soaked match by 2-1. Both teams had met at the same stage the previous year in an encounter that Bendel Insurance were not just the surprise winners, they went ahead to beat dreaded Enugu Rangers 3-0 in the final.
The 1978 clash, which Bendel Insurance won by 2-0, was the last match played in Nigeria by Kunle Awesu who was injured in that match and later sneaked to the United States to pursue an academic life as a lawyer.
In 1979, apart from the quest for vengeance on the part of Shooting Stars, both were hot contenders for the National League title that Bendel had just won.
Within the regulation time, the Shooting Stars had become victorious, winning 2-1. But there was no time for the expected celebration.
Their moment of joy had turned national grief. Twenty-four fans had died in a stampede that ensued minutes after the match when the floodlights were suddenly switched off.
The tightly packed crowd made frantic and hurriedly rushed towards the 72 exit points of the main bowl where iron gates had just been mounted.
But unknown to the rushing crowd, the exit points at the northern end of the stadium, the gates A and B were still locked. Early arrivals to the locked gates were trapped to the barrier in the ensuing stampede.
The gates collapsed under the weight of the surging crowd and the early arrivals were trampled upon. The unlucky fans were pressed upon the iron gates, which later fell under the weight of the surging crowd.
Some of them died of suffocation. Worse still, the National Sports Commission (NSC) medical centre was not opened. So, there was no immediate medical attention.
Ambulances at the sports complex could not also function for lack of personnel. About 50 others in convulsive conditions were rushed to hospitals.
By the time calm was restored, 24 fans were dead. Almost 30 others were seriously wounded. The death toll was relayed in the late news announcement on television where viewers were possibly just awaiting electoral results of the 1979 Presidential Election and that of the classic Bendel Insurance /IICC Shooting Stars clash.
Two medical personnel, Dr. Alaba Efunkoya, a former chairman of Nigeria Table Tennis Association and Commodore Sojinrin, a naval doctor who had come to watch the match and who later became chairman of National Sports Commission some years later, assisted in offering first aid to some of the victims.
Two days later, the NSC issued a statement lamenting the national tragedy.