Indonesia soccer tragedy: Survivors tell of horror at stadium tragedy, officials say helped push closed exits

Jakarta, Indonesia

Fans trying to escape the chaos that erupted at Indonesia’s Kanjuruhan stadium last Saturday were trapped when security failed to open several exit gates, crushing the crowd that killed at least 131 people, according to the national football association.

Security forces are facing growing anger over their role in the disaster, amid questions that officials used excessive force to try to remove fans from the pitch after Arema FC’s 3-2 defeat to visitors Persebaya Surabaya.

The disaster, one of the worst in the sport’s history, saw 42,000 Arema FC fans turn on the police, and security forces fired tear gas into the closed areas of the stadium. Most of the deaths – including 33 children – are believed to have been caused by panicked fans trying to escape the suffocating smoke, causing them to be crushed in the exits.

Indonesian police have launched an investigation into the use of tear gas during the match in the city of Malang, and nine officers from East Java province have been suspended.

But amid allegations of mismanagement by the police and the organizers of the game, survivors of the tragedy are demanding answers.

“We were all disappointed with the result of the match, but there was no (sign of) violence or chaos until the police started firing tear gas,” said 62-year-old Arema fan Toni Lestari Widodo.

It has only “escalated the situation” and made it worse, he said. “The police overreacted in the management of the situation. I really don’t understand why they did it. There was really no sense of violence (on their part).’

Andi Hariyanto, 32, lost several members of his family in the tragedy, including his wife, two teenage daughters and a niece.

He stayed behind in the stands with his family to avoid the crowds rushing to the exits.

Riot police on the ground fired tear gas at supporters in the stands, he said.

“It was a big mistake,” he said. “Don’t they know that there were also many women and children who were watching the game? I still don’t understand. What did we do to make them want to shoot us?’

Hariyanto, along with his 2-year-old son, Gian, managed to escape the crush.

His wife, Gebi Asta Putri Purwoko, and their two daughters, Natasya Debi Ramadani, 14, and Naila Debi Anggraini, 12, did not.

At midnight he returned to the stadium, dozens of body bags were lying on the ground. “One by one, I opened the covers to find my family,” she said.

“Then I found Natasya and Naila, lying next to each other,” she said, fighting back tears. “I can’t remember how many bodies I checked to find, but when I finished everything, I still didn’t find my wife.”

In a statement on Tuesday, the Indonesian Football Association said it had permanently removed the security official responsible for regulating exits from the stadium. He said some doors were closed during the disaster because orders were not properly communicated.

“The doors should have been open but they were closed,” said Erwin Tobing, head of the association’s disciplinary committee. There are a total of 14 gates in the stadium.

Security rules and precautions state that the gates must be unlocked 10 minutes before the end of the game.

On the night of the disaster, several doors were still closed a minute after the referee blew the final whistle, the association said.

Spokesman Ahmad Riyadh also blamed a shortage of staff, saying there had been “few security guards” to open the doors.

All Indonesian football league matches have been suspended by order of President Joko Widodo as official investigations are underway.