“The pain doesn’t go away my brother,” Simron Tigerls says. “Even now, 20 years after it happened, I am still hurting. We are all still hurting.”
Tigerls and his family are among those who lost loved ones on that fateful Wednesday night on 11 April 2001 during what has since come to be known as the Ellis Park disaster. Forty-three souls were lost in a stampede that ensued when spectators forced their way into the already packed arena during the Soweto Derby between Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates.
Tigerls’ younger brother Danny was among those who died. “It feels just like yesterday,” he says. “I don’t think I could ever forget that night. Because of that, I’ve not been to a football stadium since. Not even during the [2010 Fifa] World Cup. As it is, I’ve never seen inside the new FNB Stadium. And, believe me, I am a big soccer fan. I am a Buccaneer. But how can I go to the stadium when the people who run the game showed us that they just don’t care about us, the fans?”
Simron chokes mid-sentence when he talks about what the Premier Soccer League (PSL) did or rather didn’t do for the families. “The PSL only spoke to us as families that week of the stampede. And we then got cheques of R22 500. I was the one who received the cheque for our family. My brother, I was heartbroken,” he says.
That money didn’t do much in raising the four children that Danny left behind. Instead, the family came together to help achieve that. “I remember suggesting to the league that they should at least try to take the children of the deceased to school at least. But who am I for them to listen to me? There was a court case, but it didn’t get far because how do you fight such giants who have massive financial muscle? We always stood no chance against them.”
Just as the likes of Danny could not survive the tidal wave of humans that resulted in the stampede as throngs of fans pushed their way into the arena through broken barricades, having heard the noise of excitement coming from inside after both sides scored early.
The result was a disaster, with many others watching in their homes on television as one limp body after another was piled up on the side of the pitch.
Recognising him only by his clothes
Simron remembers his phone ringing: “I got a call from my sister asking me if I was seeing what was happening at Ellis Park. I immediately called Danny because I knew he had made the trip from home [Westenburg, Polokwane] with his friends for the match even though this time he had not come by my place [in Midrand] as he always did. His phone rang unanswered. I also called his friend George Musi but his phone was off.”
With some trepidation, he drove from his home to the stadium and was not prepared for what he saw.
“There were dead bodies all over the turf, my brother,” he said. When he couldn’t see his brother among those bodies, he told himself he must have gone to their relatives in Diepkloof. He had some hope when he also couldn’t find him at the hospital. The last stop was the mortuary, where he reluctantly went.
“We looked around and one of his friends said, ‘Gents, hier’s ons broer (here’s our brother).’ I went to see him, but I couldn’t be sure it was him. His face was squashed from the stampede.” The friend who saw Danny recognised him by the Chiefs tracksuit he was wearing.
Now to tell the family.
“The worst phone call I’ve ever had to make. My father didn’t want to believe me. ‘Danny is in Polokwane and you’re in Joburg but here you are telling me he is dead there?’ We had a massive argument because Danny had not told my dad he was going to the match.”
Life without his younger brother has been tough ever since, Simron says. And the sight of his children growing up without their father continuously breaks his heart.
“Danny loved his kids, and I am sure he would have been a fantastic dad. But now it has been up to all of us as a family to bring them up. It has not been easy because it means we’ve all got to take from our own families’ allocation. But what can we do?
“I remember that night seeing that young boy [Rosswin Nation, 11] who died in that stampede. I really feel for his parents. No one wants to lose a child, at least not in that manner. And I’ve heard that on that night, the father had woken that boy up to take him to the stadium. Can you imagine just how that would have impacted on the family… his relationship with his wife. The Ellis Park disaster had a massively negative impact on many people, and it is very sad that no one has really been made to account for it.”
Danny Tigerls would have been 50 years old now.
“Some days I find myself imagining just how he would be as an older man. But football has robbed me of that. And that’s why I just can’t get myself to going to the stadium.”