Cote d’Ivoire stampede after fireworks kills 61

Most of the victims in Abidjan between 8 and 15 years old

AP, AFP-JIJI

A crowd stampeded after leaving a New Year’s fireworks show early Tuesday in Cote d’Ivoire’s main city, killing 61 people — many of them children and teenagers — and injuring more than 200, rescue workers said.

Thousands had gathered at the Felix Houphouet Boigny Stadium in Abidjan’s Plateau district to see the fireworks. It was only the second New Year’s Eve fireworks display since peace returned to this West African nation after a bloody upheaval over presidential elections put the nation on the brink of civil war and turned this city into a battle zone.

With 2013 showing greater promise, people were in the mood to celebrate on New Year’s Eve. Families brought children and they watched the rockets burst in the nighttime sky. But only an hour into the new year, as the crowds poured onto the Boulevard de la Republic after the show, something caused a stampede, said Col. Issa Sako of the fire department rescue team. How so many deaths occurred on the broad boulevard and how the tragedy started is likely to be the subject of an investigation.

According to a police source, the crush occurred when two streams of spectators going in opposite directions crossed paths.

A security source added that rescue services “took some time to arrive.”

Many of the younger ones in the crowd went down, trampled underfoot. Most of those killed were between 8 and 15 years old

“The flood of people leaving the stadium became a stampede, which led to the deaths of more than 60 and injured more than 200,” Sako told Cote d’Ivoire state TV.

Desperate parents went to the city morgue, the hospital and the stadium to try to find missing children.

Mamadou Sanogo was searching for his 9-year-old son, Sayed. “I have just seen all the bodies, but I cannot find my son,” Sanogo said. “I don’t know what to do.”

State TV showed a woman sobbing in the back of an ambulance, another was bent over on the side of the street, apparently in pain and another, barely conscious and wearing only a bra on her upper body, was hoisted by rescuers. There were also scenes of small children being treated in a hospital. One boy grimaced in pain and a girl with colored braids in her hair lay under a blanket with one hand bandaged. The death toll could rise, officials said.

A mother named Zeinab who had taken two of her children to the stadium found one of them in the hospital, a small boy who lay on a bed in a groggy state.

Zeinab said she “hurt all over” and showed a journalist the scratches on her body.

“I don’t know what happened but I found myself lying on the ground with people stepping on me, pulling my hair or tearing my clothes,” she said.

She said she had been knocked unconscious and that a young man had pulled her from the crowd.

“This is a real tragedy on this New Year’s Day,” President Alassane Ouattara said at the scene.

“We are all in shock,” he said, adding that a period of national mourning would be held.

After the sun came up, soldiers were patrolling the site that was littered with victims’ clothes, shoes, torn sandals and other belongings.

Ouattara and his wife, Dominique, visited some of the injured in the hospital.

The president pledged that the government would pay for their treatment, his office said.

Although the troubled West African nation is still recovering from the political and military crisis, Ouattara had struck a note of optimism in a New Year’s message on Monday evening.

He said the former French colony had “possibilities like seldom before” ahead of it, promising it would soon reap the rewards of economic growth and development.

The government organized the fireworks to celebrate Cote d’Ivoire’s peace, after several months of political violence in early 2011, following disputed elections.

This is not Cote d’Ivoire’s first stadium tragedy. In 2009, 22 people died and more than 130 were injured in a stampede at a World Cup qualifying match at the Felix Houphouet Boigny Stadium, prompting FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, to impose a fine of tens of thousands of dollars on Cote d’Ivoire’s soccer federation. The stadium, which officially holds 35,000, was overcrowded at the time of the disaster.

A year later, two people were killed and 30 wounded in a stampede at a municipal stadium during a reggae concert in Bouake, the country’s second-largest city. The concert was organized in the city, held by rebels at the time, to promote peace and reconciliation.

Cote d’Ivoire is the world’s largest cocoa producer, growing more than 37 percent of the world’s annual crop of cocoa beans, which are used to make chocolate.