Whether it’s a fan dying at a sporting event or a player cut down in their prime, when tragedy strikes in the sports world, it hits fans hard. Perhaps it’s because we see sports stars as immortal; athletes that can run fast, jump high, and hit hard. Or, maybe it is the innocence that sports still exudes to fans. Sure, there are multi-million-dollar contracts and billions of dollars in revenue in play, but the raw emotion shown through sports is simply unparalleled.
The emotion is what keeps the fans coming through the gates, and unfortunately, it has been the driving force behind some of the worst disasters in sports history. Overcrowding the stands and a lack of emergency support services have resulted in thousands of deaths at some of the world’s biggest matches. In similar fashion, tragedy can strike when you would least expect it. As athletes board their planes and buses, they would hardly think that their lives were on the line as they close their eyes for a little shut-eye.
On March 2, 2007, the baseball players and coaches from Bluffton University were hardly thinking that they were on the last bus ride of their lives. As they travelled through Georgia en route to Sarasota Florida, the bus driver lost control and flipped over a bridge, killing 7 and injuring 21. This is just one example of how quickly things can change, not just for individuals, but communities as a whole. Here are 10 other tragic accidents that have shocked the sports world, and led to major changes in policy and safety at sporting events around the globe.
10. 1972 Andes Flight Disaster — 29 Dead, 16 Survivors
Known as the “Miracle of the Andes,” a plane carrying the Uruguayan rugby team along with their friends and family crashed into the Andes Mountains on October 13, 1972. Although the pilot had low visibility due to cloud coverage, he relied on the normal amount of time it took to descend through the pass, eventually crashing into a mountain peak. A quarter of the people on board died in the crash, while several others died in the ensuing days. Eight more died in an avalanche that followed the crash and the last 16 survivors were rescued on December 23. With little food and no source of heat, some of the survivors resorted to eating the flesh of their fallen friends and family in order to live.
9. 2001/2011 Oklahoma State University Plane Crashes — 8 and 4 Dead, Respectively
On January 27, 2001, a plane taking off from Jefferson County Airport crashed near Stillwater Regional Airport, killing two players and six members of the broadcast and coaching staff of the Men’s Basketball team. The pilot had become disoriented in a snowstorm and lost control of the plane. A memorial was erected in their honor, coining the phrase “Remember the Ten” for those 10 who lost their lives.
The second OSU tragedy was on November 17, 2011 when the Head Coach and Assistant Coach of the Women’s basketball team, along with Senator Olin Branstetter and his wife went down. The plane crash happened days before the football team’s only loss of the season occurred and a memorial was set up inside Gallagher-Iba Arena to honor those who lost their lives from the most recent crash.
8. 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing — 3 Dead, 264 Injured
Two pressure cooker bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013, one of the few disasters to have ever occurred during a sporting event in America. The two bombs that exploded led to the deaths of 3 people and injured 264. In the following hours, a massive manhunt began throughout the Boston area. The search went on for several days, and on April 18th, an MIT police officer was killed by the suspects after they carjacked an SUV. The following day, a firefight ensued between law enforcement officials and the suspects, resulting in the death of one of the two men. The bombings stoked an emotional fire for the Boston Red Sox as they spent the entire season honoring those who lost their lives and those who were injured, making their way to the World Series and beat the St. Louis Cardinals in six games.
7. 1972 Roberto Clemente Crash — 5 Dead
Despite being a big time major league ballplayer, Roberto Clemente never strayed from his roots and always conducted charitable work during his time away from baseball. On December 31, 1972, Clemente boarded a cargo plane that was destined to deliver humanitarian aid for earthquake victims in Nicaragua. After hearing about corrupt officials who were not distributing the aid properly, Clemente wanted to personally go accompany the delivery to make sure it made it to those in need. Upon takeoff, the plane was weighted down 4,000 lbs over the limit, resulting in a crash off the coast of Puerto Rico. What makes this crash so tragic is the fact that Clemente was one of the greatest baseball players in the modern era and was trying to do anything he could in order to help the world. Even to this day, he is the only player to have ever hit a walk-off inside the park grand slam.
6. 1989 World Series Earthquake — 63 Dead, 4,000 Injured
While nobody was injured inside the stadium during the game, the sports world was literally rocked during an earthquake 25 minutes before the start of the first World Series game played at Candlestick Park in over 27 years. The massive 7.1 earthquake was the strongest in California since the 8.3 quake in 1906. Outside of the stadium, the earthquake killed 63 people and injured thousands, causing a 10-day postponement of the series. In fact, the game has been credited with saving hundreds of lives because many people had left work earlier to make it to the game or go watch it at home. Otherwise, the Nimitz Freeway, which collapsed due to the quake, would have been bumper to bumper in typical California rush hour style.
5. 1972 Munich Massacre — 11 Dead
Despite a push to make the 1972 Summer Olympics more friendly to visitors in order to ease the militaristic image many had of Germany, terror struck and the eyes of the world were fixed upon Munich for all the wrong reasons. At 4:30am on September 5th, eight masked members of the Palestinian terror group Black September broke into the rooms of the Israeli Olympic team and held them hostage. After a failed rescue attempt, gunfire and a grenade that was thrown into an aircraft ready to take the Israelis home killed all of the hostages. Jim McKay, a reporter for ABC that was covering the games at the time, summed up the outcome of the situation with the following words. “Our worst fears have been realized tonight. They’ve now said that there were eleven hostages. Two were killed in their rooms yesterday morning, nine were killed at the airport tonight. They’re all gone.”
4. 1955 24 Hour Le Mans Tragedy — 84 Dead, 120 Injured
As the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans kicked off, Pieree Levegh was behind the wheel of the #20 Mercedes 300 SLR. After an initial collision between Levegh’s SLR and Lance Macklin’s Austin-Healey, Levegh went airborne and flew into the stands. Thousands of pieces of debris littered the grandstands as spectators were in the direct line of flight of the front axle and engine block. The result was the death of 84 spectators and injuries to over 100. The race eventually continued, under protest, because race organizers thought that if the crowds left it would slow down the arrival of emergency crews. In the years after the race, Levegh’s co-driver, John Fitch, became a safety advocate that sought out safer road cars and racing circuits to minimize future incidents.
3. 1985 Bradford City Stadium Fire — 56 Dead, 265 Injured
The worst fire disaster in the history of English football occurred on May 11th, 1985 at Valley Parade Stadium in a match between Bradford City and Lincoln City. The stadium had been known for years for its antiquated design and its sparse safety regulations, a fact that officials had never confronted head on before. With a wooden roof, wood seats, and litter strewn all over, the stadium was a tinderbox, just waiting for a spark. A small fire in the stands from a stray cigarette butt landed on debris and started a small fire, although the heavy winds engulfed the stadium in fire in just under four minutes, leaving thousands stuck in their seats and begging to get out. Even though 56 people perished in the accident, over 50 people received commendations and awards from the police due to their heroic efforts to help people get out of harm’s way.
2. 1970 Marshall Plane Crash — 75 Dead
Just hearing the words Southern Airlines Flight 932 sends chills down the back of any hardcore college football fan. After losing to Eastern Carolina 17-14, the Marshall football team boarded their plane and prepared for the flight back home. Sadly, the team never made it, as the plane crashed into a hill and killed all 75 people onboard. Included in these casualties were 37 players, 8 coaches, 25 boosters, and 5 crew members. At the time of the crash, Marshall very rarely travelled by plane to and from their games, as most were within driving distance. This added even more devastation to the incident, as the tragedy of the Marshall University Thundering Herd is the still the deadliest sports related disaster in US history.
1. 1989 Hillsborough Disaster – 96 Dead, 766 Injured
Even if you don’t watch European football very often, chances are you have heard about the Hillsborough disaster at some point. During the first round of the FA Cup in Sheffield, England, 96 people were killed as overcrowding led to a structural compromise of the facility and hundreds were crushed. To make matters worse, of those 96 fatalities, only 14 of them made it to the hospital; the rest had died at the stadium. In the aftermath of the incident, the police and EMS were criticized for responding late and allowing so many extra fans into the contest. As recently as 2012, the Hillsborough Independent Panel found that the main cause of the disaster was due to the “lack of police control,” citing that crowd safety had been compromised at every possible level. The damning report also noted that of those 96 deaths, up to 41 could have survived had emergency services been in place on site.