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How photographing Heysel football disaster changed my life

3 March 2017

On a clear, sunny evening in 1985, fans of Liverpool and Juventus gathered in Brussels for the European Cup Final. A young British sports photographer would later win an award for the bleakest pictures of his career. EAMONN McCABE relives the night in Heysel Stadium that changed his life.

Juventus fans struggle as the Heysel stadium wall collapses © Eamonn McCabe

Eamonn McCabe is the presenter of a new three-part series, Britain In Focus: A Photographic History, starting 9pm, Monday 6 March on BBC Four.

I gravitated towards the Juventus end and it was a photographer’s dream – banners, flags and fireworks

It was a beautiful, sunny evening and I was both nervous and excited. Although I'd had some success by that point, you never know how your next picture is going to turn out.

You’ve got to remember that in those days football wasn’t on television five nights a week, and Belgium seemed a lot further away than it does now. Football, and especially European football, was exotic. There was a glamour about it and I couldn’t wait to shoot Juventus in their famous black and white strips.

It was half an hour or so before kick-off. I gravitated towards the Juventus end and it was a photographer’s dream – banners, flags and fireworks. I was as happy as a sand-boy.

Then I noticed a wave of red travelling across the terracing from right to left. It was a group of Liverpool fans and they were charging at the Juventus fans. There was often trouble at games but it was usually overtaken by the football after kick-off. Unfortunately on this occasion it would lead to a catastrophe none of us saw coming.

Just as I arrived at the scene, the wall above me collapsed from the weight of the fans who were pushed up against it in their hundreds. All hell was breaking loose.

Eamonn McCabe returns to Heysel Stadium for BBC Four photography series Britain In Focus
Juventus fans in the immediate aftermath of the wall collapse © Eamonn McCabe

I instinctively picked up my point-and-click camera and took a couple of pictures

With me that day I had my usual camera and long lenses for shooting the game. I also carried a Nikon SureShot round my neck - a point and click camera - as it can be bedlam at the end of the match as all the photographers try to get a shot of the trophy being handed over. I instinctively picked up this camera and took a couple of pictures.

I ran over to see what was happening. The Juventus fans were trying to flee, scrambling up to the back of the stand in the hope of finding a way out. They were met with a sheer drop and had to turn around and come back down the terraces.

Injured fans were carried on make-shift stretchers © Eamonn McCabe

I want people to know that when I took these pictures I didn’t realise what was happening. You know some photographers get labelled as ghouls for taking pictures of these sort of tragic events.

You go into a different mode. You’re there for your paper, in a foreign country and there's this unfolding story. I thought, 'I better do this, this is important'. In that situation it’s point and click and stay out of the way.

An injured Juventus fan is rescued © Eamonn McCabe

I continued to take pictures, some too harrowing for publication. Pictures of dead bodies on the pitch, ambulances. I’m not proud of it but at the time I thought, 'I’ll document this and someone else can make the decision of what to show'.

I won News Photographer of the Year for those pictures, an award I wish I’d never won

I stayed there until one in the morning, then I drove back to my hotel and slept. The next day I caught the ferry back and delivered the images to my picture editor.

That first picture I took, of the fans reaching out over the wall, was on the front of The Observer the following Sunday.

Luckily all of the fans in that picture made it, but 39 other people died that night and hundreds more were injured.

I won News Photographer of the Year for those pictures, an award I wish I’d never won. I walked into that stadium a sports photographer and I left a news photographer.

After that night I just thought, if this is sport you can have it.

It was tough returning to Heysel Stadium for the filming of Britain In Focus. They had rebuilt it but kept everything the same so I could immediately picture the ambulances, the bodies.

The last time I was standing there, 39 people were dying and now there were people acting like it never happened. It was hard to go back there but I am glad I did.

Episode one of Britain In Focus: A Photographic History starts at 9pm, Monday 6 March on BBC Four. The programme is part of BBC Four's Photography Season.

'Lost shoes were everywhere'. Injured fan at Heysel © Eamonn McCabe

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