• Wed. Aug 31st, 2022

The story of the 1971 Ibrox Disaster

Jan 2, 2021

The three Markinch boys who came home, Peter, Shane and Joe – who passed away in 2019 – never dwelled on what went wrong on Stairway 13.
“As far as I’ve been concerned it’s always been just a tragic accident and the five Markinch boys, with being youngsters and all together, got caught up in it,” says Shane.
But the inquiry and a subsequent civil legal case against Rangers showed this had not been the first problem on Stairway 13. There had been three serious accidents at the exit in the previous decade, including a crush in 1961 which saw two people die and 70 injured. 
The club made changes to Stairway 13 after these earlier incidents, such as replacing wooden barriers with steel, but the fundamental design was not altered. Suggestions from the police and local council to change the steps to allow people to “fan out” instead of coming straight down, as well as replacing the side fence with a metal rail, were not acted upon.
Rangers manager Willie Waddell speaks to journalists at Ibrox.
Rangers manager Willie Waddell speaks to journalists at Ibrox.
In 1969 Rangers reinforced the side fence of Stairway 13 with concrete. This move was described by engineering firm Ove Arup in its evidence to the civil case as “hardly comprehensible”, as it had been the way fans escaped danger in previous crushes.
Arup also claimed the height and depth of the steps on Stairway 13 were unsafe “where the crowd pressure is likely to be at its highest”. But Rangers’ lawyers argued that the accident was caused by “unpredictable human conduct”.
A consulting engineer for Norwich Union, the club’s insurers, disagreed with Arup’s assessment and speculated that, “it seems to me the spectators created their own danger.”
Club officials went further in their submissions to the court, with one director arguing that Stairway 13 “seemed to us to be a good staircase,” adding that the accidents, “could have been created by elements in the crowd simply refusing to hold back and maintain some form of order amongst themselves.”
“The problems of crowd movements, pressures and flows was not generally appreciated prior to 1971”Walter Winterbottom
Professor Keith Still says this instinct to blame the behaviour of those caught up in crushes is commonplace. “In nearly every instance it’s ‘blame the crowd’,” he says.
“If you look at all of the headlines of all of the major disasters, they will usually use those two words, ‘panic’ and ‘stampede’. Very rarely has that been the cause of the incident. It’s been a consequence of people reacting to a situation that they find themselves in.”
Professor Still adds that it was important to remember that much of the understanding of the dynamics of human crushes came decades after the Ibrox disaster. 
“You cannot judge an event in 1971 by the science that we know and understand now,” he says. “Hindsight’s a wonderful thing. But at that time, this was common practice, there hadn’t been a disaster.”
Professor Keith Still talks to BBC reporter Andrew Picken.
Walter Winterbottom, the first England manager, led a review of sports stadiums after the Ibrox disaster. It took in 57 grounds across the UK, including 14 in Scotland. He made the same point 50 years ago.
In a letter held at the Mitchell Library archives in Glasgow, Mr Winterbottom said Rangers’ stadium was actually “above average” in terms of construction quality and he saw “several other stairways that potentially seemed more dangerous than the Ibrox one”.
But, crucially, Mr Winterbottom concluded it was the volume of people using this stairway which caused the accident, adding that the “nature of the problems of crowd movements, pressures and flows was not generally appreciated prior to 1971”.
Irvine Smith QC, the sheriff in charge of the civil case, ruled the accident was due to the negligence of Rangers and awarded £26,000 in damages to the family of one of the victims.
The sheriff was critical of Rangers’ directors in charge at the time of the disaster and said their attitude was as if “the problem was ignored long enough it would eventually disappear”.