Indonesian police said they were investigating over a dozen officers responsible for firing tear gas that set off a crush that killed 125 people at a soccer match, as families and friends grieved Monday for the victims that included 17 children.
Distraught family members were struggling to comprehend the sudden loss of loved ones at the match in East Java’s Malang city that was watched only by hometown Arema FC fans. The organizer had banned visiting Persebaya Surabaya's supporters due to Indonesia's history of violent soccer rivalries.
The crush was among the world's deadliest disasters at a sporting event.
Witnesses said fans flooded the pitch and demanded that Arema management explain why, after 23 years of undefeated home matches against Persebaya, Saturday night’s ended in a 3-2 defeat. Some of the 42,000 Arema fans threw bottles and other objects at players and soccer officials. At least five police vehicles were toppled and set ablaze outside the stadium.
But most of the deaths occurred when riot police, trying to stop the violence, fired tear gas, including toward the spectator stands, triggering the disastrous crush of fans making a panicked, chaotic run for the exits. Most of the 125 people who died were trampled upon or suffocated.
At least 17 children were among the dead and seven were being treated in hospitals, the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection said. Police said 323 people overall were injured in the crush, some of them still in critical condition.
National Police spokesperson Dedy Prasetyo said in a news conference that 18 officers responsible for firing tear gas, ranging from middle- to high-ranking, were being investigated along with “internal matters related to security management.”
He said police were still questioning witnesses and analyzing footage from 32 security cameras inside and outside the stadium and nine mobile phones owned by the victims as part of the investigation to also identify suspected vandals. Two police officers were among the dead.
Arema players and officials laid wreaths Monday in front of the stadium. “We came here as a team asking forgiveness from the families impacted by this tragedy, those who lost their loves ones or the ones still being treated in the hospital,” head coach Javier Roca said.
At the home of Faiqotul Hikmah, 22, her parents and relatives wailed when an ambulance arrived with her body wrapped in white cloth and a black blanket. An Aremania — the moniker for Arema fans — she died while fleeing to exit 12 at Kanjuruhan Stadium.
A dozen friends traveled to see the match but Hikmah was one of only four who entered the stadium because tickets were sold out, her friend, Abdul Mukid, said Monday in an Associated Press interview. He later bought a ticket separately from a broker then learned of the chaos that had erupted inside the stadium.
“I have to find her, save her ... that’s kept me from thinking anything else,” Mukid recalled. “The situation is really ... really terrible!”
Mukid found Hikmah's body laid at a building in the stadium compound, her face full of bluish bruises and broken ribs. He learned a second friend had died from other friends who called him while he was in the ambulance carrying Hikmah’s body to a hospital. Noval Putra Aulia, 19, was an orphan who had been cared for by his brother since their parents died five years ago, Mukid said.
“I can’t put into words how much my sorrow is to lose my sister,” said Nur Laila, Hikmah’s older sibling. “She was just a big Arema fan who wanted to watch her favorite team play. She shouldn’t die just for that,” she said, wiping tears.
President Joko Widodo ordered the premier soccer league suspended until safety is reevaluated and security tightened. Indonesia’s soccer association has also banned Arema from hosting soccer matches for the rest of the season.
Arema FC President Gilang Widya Pramana expressed his sadness and deepest apologies to the victims and the Indonesian people, and said he is ready to take full responsibility for the tragedy at his team’s stadium.
He said that the management, coach and players were in shock and speechless.
“I am ready to provide assistance, even though it will not be able to return the victim’s life,” Pramana said in a news conference Monday at Arema’s headquarters in Malang.
“This incident was beyond prediction, beyond reason ... in a match watched only by our fans, not a single rival’s supporter,” he said, sobbing. “How can that match kill more than 100 people? An incident that probably wouldn’t exist in the world.”
He said that Arema FC was ready to accept any sanctions from Indonesia’s Soccer Association and the government, and “hopefully, it will be a very valuable lesson.”
Security Minister Mohammad Mahfud said he will lead a separate inquiry to investigate violations of law in the disaster. The team will also determine what victims' compensation should be provided and will complete the task in three weeks.
Rights group Amnesty International urged Indonesia to investigate the use of tear gas and ensure that those found responsible are tried in open court. While FIFA has no control over domestic games, it has advised against the use of tear gas at soccer stadiums.
Despite Indonesia’s lack of international accolades in the sport, hooliganism is rife in the soccer-obsessed country where fanaticism often ends in violence. Data from Indonesia’s soccer watchdog, Save Our Soccer, showed 78 people have died in game-related incidents over the past 28 years.
Saturday’s game was among the world’s worst crowd disasters in sports, including the 1996 World Cup qualifier between Guatemala and Costa Rica in Guatemala City where over 80 died and over 100 more were injured. In April 2001, more than 40 people are crushed to death during a soccer match at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, South Africa.
By Associated Press writers Agoes Basoeki and Edna Tarigan. AP writer Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia, also contributed to this report.
Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.