JEMBER, Indonesia — Families and friends of some of the 125 people who died in a crush set off by police tear gas after an Indonesia soccer match wailed in grief as the bodies of the victims were returned home Monday. Seventeen children were among the dead.
Police said 18 officers responsible for firing tear gas as well as security managers were being investigated and mobile phones owned by victims were being examined to identify suspected vandals.
Distraught family members were struggling to comprehend the sudden loss of loved ones at a soccer match in East Java’s Malang city that was watched only by hometown Arema FC fans because 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 ever at a sporting event. President Joko Widodo ordered an investigation of security procedures, and the president of FIFA called the deaths “a dark day for all involved in football and a tragedy beyond comprehension.”
Faiqotul Hikmah, 22, was an Aremania — the moniker for Arema fans — who 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!”
Two of his friends died and two were injured. Mukid found Hikmah’s body laid at a building in the stadium compound, her face full of bluish bruises and broken ribs.
At Hikmah’s parents’ home in Jember, East Java province, relatives wailed when an ambulance arrived with her body wrapped in white cloth and a black blanket.
“I can’t put into words how much my sorrow is to lose my sister,” said Nur Laila, Hikmah’s older sister. “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.
Mukid learned a second friend had died from friends who called him while he was on 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.
At least 17 children were among the dead and seven children were injured and treated hospitals, the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection said. Police say 323 people overall were injured in the crush, some of them still in critical condition.
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.
Riot police trying to stop the violence fired tear gas, including toward the spectator stands, and triggered 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. Children were reported to be among the casualties, and two others were said to be police officers.
Widodo ordered the premier soccer league suspended until safety is reevaluated and security is tightened. Indonesia’s soccer association has also banned Arema from hosting soccer matches for the rest of the season.
National Police spokesperson Dedy Prasetyo said in a news conference Monday that police are investigating 18 officers responsible for firing tear gas as well as security managers, ranging from middle- to high-ranking officers.
He also said police are still questioning witnesses while 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 identify suspected vandals.
In a separate news conference, security minister Mohammad Mahfud said he will led an inquiry to investigate violations of the law in the stadium 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 in violations 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.