Chris Parsonage can’t escape the terrifying picture that keeps coming to him. He sees himself caught in the crush of a mob, watching helplessly as a man nearby has the life squeezed out of him. “He is on the other side of one person, sideways,” says Parsonage, 29, a math teacher from outside Liverpool, England. “His eyes are shut, his face just slowly going bluer and bluer.” Parsonage wants to reach out and help the man, but his arms are pinned and there is nothing he can do.
For Parsonage, the frightening images are more than just a dream—they are memory. Last month he was caught up in a chaotic rush of soccer fans before a playoff match in Sheffield, and somehow he survived the crush that left 95 dead, more than 200 injured and all of Britain in shock. During the week that followed, as more than a million people came to Anfield Stadium in Liverpool to mourn the victims, Parsonage remained at his home, nursing his injuries and reflecting on those moments that nearly cost him his life.
He and two friends had driven to Sheffield on Saturday, April 15, to see the semifinal Football Association Cup match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. They stopped at a pub for lunch, hoisted a couple of pints and then headed for the stadium. Arriving shortly before kickoff, Parsonage’s buddies took their seats in the stands while he headed for the entry that lead to the cheaper, standing-room-only terrace behind one of the goals.
“The area in front of the turnstiles was absolutely packed,” says Parsonage. “It wasn’t a queue. It was a big mass of people. A few were shouting at the coppers on horseback to get it sorted out. There were some who had a bit too much to drink, but it was a good-natured crowd in the main.”
Pushed through the turnstiles by the surging crowd behind him, Parsonage entered a 25-yard tunnel leading to the terrace. Although he overheard someone say that the police (apparently fearing a fatal crush outside) had opened the gates behind him, he thought little of it. “Everybody was pushing forward to get in and see the kickoff,” he says, “but I had been in crowds like this before.”
Once he had reached the terrace, he says, “I wanted to get a good place where the fences weren’t in the way or I wasn’t standing behind someone bigger than me. So I tried to push off to the side, but there was nowhere to go. The terrace was absolutely packed.” Then the crowd behind suddenly swelled, lifting Parsonage and other fans off their feet. One of his legs was carried forward while the other was trapped against a barrier. “I was caught there like a ballerina on a practice bar, screaming out,” he says. “I honestly thought my leg would snap, and I was panicking.”
Moments later the barrier collapsed. “The pressure eased for a few seconds,” he says. “But I was still in a very strange position and couldn’t get either foot down. At some point there was this teenage girl behind me whose eyes were closed, obviously sort of fainted. I was shouting, ‘Get up! Get up!’ trying to get one arm to hold her up, but I couldn’t manage it. We were screaming at the coppers to stop the game, but we couldn’t scream for long; it became too tight. Then there was a sway of the crowd to the left, and I managed to get a toe on the floor and force myself upwards. I was desperately struggling to keep my mouth up high so I could keep breathing. I am 6’1″, and if I had been just a few inches shorter, I would have died. I kept looking around and coming back to this fellow in front of me. His face was going blue.”
When the pressure from behind finally eased, Parsonage fell to the ground. Someone assisted him to his feet, and “I turned around straight away and tried to help somebody else, but my leg wouldn’t hold me up,” he says. Afraid that he was in the way of rescuers, he found a place to sit and didn’t move for an hour and a half. “I can’t remember any sound until at some point one guy put his arms around me. I started shaking and crying because I knew very well I could have been dead. I could see all these people being carried away like dolls in a toy shop, with arms hanging all over the place.”
A short while later Parsonage managed to limp back to his friends. Driven home, he saw his wife and then went to the hospital for X rays of his injured leg. Doctors found no fracture and gave him a sedative. “But I couldn’t sleep,” he says. “I just couldn’t get the images out of my mind. I still wake up crying in the middle of the night and see that guy’s face in front of me. At the stadium, I think I was crying because I was alive. Now I don’t know. I think I am crying for the dead.”
—David Grogan, Jonathan Cooper in Liverpool