Ibrox Disaster, January 2nd, 1971

These are the moving words of ambulanceman Jack Kirkland, one of the many who did what they could to save lives on that dark night at Ibrox. 

After the final whistle at Ibrox that Saturday I went off home, unaware that anything unusual had happened, for I’d left from an exit far from the Copland Road end of the Stadium and the stairway where the horror of Ibrox took place.

I was whistling when I arrived home, ready for my tea, and a relaxing Saturday night in front of the television. My young daughter came running out to meet me and I held out my arms to her. Then I realised she wasn’t smiling or laughing at me. She was breathless and shouting. ‘Daddy, daddy! There’s a man on the phone. He says you’ve to hurry.’ I ran past her and into the house.

It was the duty control officer who was calling. ‘A barrier’s collapsed at Ibrox, Jack. It looks bad. We have reports coming in all the time.’

‘But I’ve just come from there…’ and I thought, it can’t be that bad. I would have known, surely?

‘It happened just after the final whistle. News of it is just beginning to come through. You’d better get back there, right now. There’s a fleet of ambulances on its way now. I’m afraid the single duty ambulance that’s always there is sorely inadequate.’

When I arrived at Ibrox the scene was one of complete chaos. People were running about all over the place, shock etched on their faces. I had to fight my way through the crowd to reach the ambulance room in the main building.

I just wasn’t prepared for the sight that greeted me when I arrived there. There wasn’t an unoccupied room in the building; patients were lying everywhere, on floors, in corridors, being treated by the St Andrew’s Ambulance Volunteers in attendance. I saw two young nurses, only girls themselves, giving mouth to mouth resuscitation to men who lay dying, ribs crushed, faces smeared with blood. The air was filled with the cries of the dying and the injured. In the melee I managed to find my colleague, Robert Brown. We decided the best thing we could do was to return to the Main Stand and liaise with the senior police officer.

We had to step over bodies that had been laid on the ground. Men moaning in pain, their faces pain weary. Police and ambulance men were giving the injured and unconscious oxygen or mouth to mouth resuscitation. Rescuers were taking many to the Main Stand for medical attention.

I checked in with ambulance control. No one hospital could cope with the number of injured we had here. Five hospitals were alerted to receive casualties. The Southern General was to take the majority of the injured. Others went to the Victoria, the Western, the Royal and the Royal Alexandria in Paisley. Paisley ambulance control too had been requested to assist and had despatched three ambulances.

Off duty ambulance officers and men had rushed from their homes to HQ to take up duty as soon as they heard the news of the disaster on radio or television. The officers had been sent to the hospitals receiving casualties and the police mortuary. Their task, to speed up the turn round of ambulances and to make sure they were fully equipped before returning to the stadium.

Soon, processions of stretcher-bearers were carrying the injured to the waiting ambulances. No one spared themselves. Football officials from both teams worked as hard as anyone, the disbelief at the enormity of what had happened evident on all their faces. As soon as ambulances were loaded they were heading for different hospitals. And then it was back for more stretchers, and seemingly unending stream of injured.

In all, eighteen ambulances worked a shuttle service between the stadium and the hospitals. The ambulances had a difficult task. The heavy traffic congestion that happens after every football fixture would have badly hampered their progress, but thanks to the expert police assistance they got through, with most of their patients being given oxygen therapy on the way.

Outside the ground, crowds of people, drawn by the news of the disaster on radio or television, stood silently, wondering if their loved ones were those in the ambulances – or worse – under one of those growing number of blankets on the ground inside. Once all the casualties were safely away, Robert Brown and I had the unenviable task of arranging for the transportation of the dead to the police mortuary.

The fatalities had been lined in rows inside, underneath the training tunnel, but when we tried to reverse our ambulances into the tunnel we realised that it was too low. The bodies would have to be brought out. With much reluctance we commandeered a groundsman’s two wheel trolley. The stretchers were loaded onto it and pushed through the tunnel to the ambulances. That is a sight that really shook me. The indignity of having to transport those bodies that way seemed just too much.

It took the best part of an hour to complete this heartbreaking task. By the end there was hardly a face that wasn’t streaked with tears.

When I checked in with ambulance control, it was to be told that Robert and I were to come to the Southern General hospital to arrange for the transportation of further bodies to the police mortuary. The Southern was a hive of activity when we arrived there. Glasgow Corporation had offered to supply private cars for the transportation of the not so badly injured to their homes after treatment, and this offer had been gratefully taken up. Ambulances, taxis and cars zoomed in and out constantly. The ambulance crews were totally exhausted.

Robert and I had only just arrived and and were talking with one of the crews when a taxi drew up and two men got out. They were supporting a third man, who was so shocked and white I thought at first he had been injured. One of the men came forward. ‘It’s his wee boy,’ he to indicated the third man who looked barely able to stand. ‘He went to the match, and didn’t come home. We’ve been to the stadium, the police sent us here. Said a few children had been taken to the hospital.’

The man suddenly started to cry. ‘Don’t tell me he’s deid. Please don’t tell me he’s deid’ One of the ambulance men went toward him. ‘I brought in a boy not long ago. What was your boy’s name?’

The man whispered his boy’s name in a sob. I think we all held our breath. We all prayed.

The ambulance man clapped a hand on his shoulder. ‘Aye, that’s him’ he said, ‘he’s a casualty. All he’s got is an injury to his ankle.’ The man suddenly threw his arms around him and hugged him. Tears of joy streaming down his face. ‘Aw thanks,’ he kept saying. ‘Aw God, thanks.’

He was one of the lucky ones. Others, unfortunately, had sad news awaiting them.

In their endeavours to save lives, 3,240 gallons of oxygen were used. It may be that no lives were saved that way, that’s something that we’ll never know, but we like to think that there’s somebody walking about out there today because of that oxygen.

Next day, Sunday, we were out again going round the various hospitals and the police mortuary to pick up our equipment. I was talking to a young policeman outside the mortuary when an old woman approached us.

‘Son,’ she said to me. ‘I’ve lived in that building for over forty years,’ and with a blue veined hand she indicated the tenement overlooking the mortuary. ‘I’ve seen ambulances come and go, but I’ve never seen anything like what I saw last night. A long line of ambulances stretching as far as my old eyes could see. Down there…’ She gazed along the road as if she could still see them now. ‘ I knew what was in those ambulances, and I just sat and cried. Do you know what I mean, son?’ Her watery blue eyes filled up with tears. ‘I just had to come out of the house to talk to somebody. Do you understand, son?’

‘Aye,’ I said. ‘I understand fine.’ She walked away, shaking her head and muttering. ‘It’s a terrible thing. A terrible thing.’

‘It’s funny, for everyone there’s something, just one thing, that makes tragedy sink in,’ the young policeman said. I knew what he meant. I was thinking of bringing those bodies out through the training tunnel. ‘Do you know what it was for me?’ he went on. ‘It was when I went into Govan police station, and there, lined up in pathetic wee bundles were all the personal belongings of the dead. That’s when it really hit me.’

All through that night the police were magnificent. They went to any lengths to help the public, and us. Whenever I hear people complaining about the police, I remember Ibrox, and their tireless efforts to help everyone. They do a hazardous job, to the best of their ability. It’s a pity they’re only appreciated when they’re needed.

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One thought on “Ibrox Disaster, January 2nd, 1971

  1. It was heart-wrenching to read that story. But it does highlight the differences of what happened with the police and emergency services at Ibrox and with what happened almost 20 years later at Hillsborough. An almost identical tragedy but with two very different responses. The emergency services at Ibrox were incredibly efficient, swift, brave, courageous and professional – a marked difference to those later at Hillsborough. It makes one wonder how many lives could have been saved at Hillsborough if the police and emergency service had acted in the same manner as those at Ibrox?
    I am confident that the swift response and professional manner with which the police and emergency services of Glasgow carried out their duties undoubtedly helped to prevent a greater disaster in human suffering.
    You really were the ‘Angels of Ibrox’ and your steadfastness, dedication and courage that terrible day will never be forgotten.

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