IT WAS a bitterly cold Saturday afternoon, a typical January day at the football in Glasgow, when Tom Donaldson took up position at the foot of Stairway 13 inside Ibrox Stadium.

The Old Firm game, a traditional New Year fixture, was about to start, and he remembers stamping his feet and blowing on his hands to warm up.

“It was an ordinary day,” explains Tom, an experienced first-aider with St Andrew’s First Aid, formerly St Andrew’s Ambulance Association. “I was at the foot of the stairway with three of my colleagues.

“It was freezing. The game was heading for a draw, which is sometimes the best result at these fixtures – both sides go home reasonably happy.”

Five minutes after the final whistle, as Rangers and Celtic fans flocked to the exits, a police officer beckoned the first aiders over.

“He said, ‘I think someone’s trying to get your attention up there’, and gestured to the top of the stairway,” says Tom. “When I looked up, I saw a group of supporters frantically waving white hankies.

“In those days, of course, there were no mobile phones, no radios. Even the police radio was no use. The control room at Ibrox was in the lower deck of the main stand and the police officer had to carry around a portable radio on his back – the only communication was external, back to HQ at Govan.”

As Tom and his colleagues started to make their way through the crowds in the standing area, the police officer led the way.

“I think this was the first time I realised something was seriously wrong,” Tom recalls. “Usually walking through the crowds was difficult, especially if you had a police officer in front of you.

“But this time, the nearer we got, people were just moving aside to let us past.”

He pauses. “I remember thinking – this is not just a simple fight or injury, it’s something much more serious.”

READ MORE: Ibrox Disaster: A day that changed football forever

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Tom had been a volunteer with SAAA for five years on January 2, 1971, when 66 fans were killed and hundreds more injured in a crush at Ibrox Stadium. He had joined the charity to get first aid experience as part of his Duke of Edinburgh Award, and he remains an active member today.

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“This year has been tough – the bulk of our charitable income comes from fundraising, of course and the pandemic has brought everything to a halt,” he explains. “There have been no events for our volunteers to cover and our social enterprise had to stop trading for several months – that has meant a drop in our income by more than £1m, and we have had to launch a campaign to raise £500,000 to help us continue our work.”

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Tom was one of 70 first aiders at Ibrox on the day of the tragedy.

“Up until then, I’d only dealt with minor injuries, the odd wound or so,” he says. “Nowadays we are all trained in major incident management, but back then, it was a different story. I was totally unprepared for what I saw at Ibrox that day.”

At the top of the standing area, he saw shocked fans staring down into the stairwell and some spectators with minor injuries staggering away from the scene to be comforted by friends and relatives.

“I looked down the stairway and saw this mass of bodies, all entangled with each other, and I can still remember the heat rising from them in the cold air,” he shakes his head.

READ MORE: When the Russians met their match at Ibrox in historic clash

“It was already getting dark, it was about 5pm, and I realised there were people everywhere. Some were on the grass verge at the right hand side, sitting dazed, others were trying to get to safety and some just stood there, frozen to the spot.”

Tom and his colleagues leapt into action, triaging the ‘walking wounded’, tending to injuries as best they could, trying to make space as attempts to rescue people caught up in the crush continued.

“The noise was horrendous – the screaming, shouting,” he says, quietly. “Back then, there were no ambulances present at the stadium, so people were trying to get the seriously wounded to hospital by any means necessary – in private cars, double decker buses, even the police Black Mariahs – until the ambulances started to arrive.

Hours later, the exhausted first aiders left the stadium.

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“I remember seeing a pile of belongings at the side of the stairway – coats, scarves, gloves – all just left there,” says Tom, sadly.

“It was horrible. It was so difficult to come back to Ibrox after that – every time I walked in, the memories were there. Of course, that day did change football, and many lessons were learned.”

The 1971 disaster - the worst in British football at that time - led to a huge redevelopment of the Ibrox ground, spearheaded by the then manager Willie Waddell, who visited Borussia Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion for inspiration.

One desperately sad image of the tragedy has stayed in Tom’s mind.

“As I left, I looked back at the pitch, and all around the perimeter lay bodies on stretchers, neatly, respectfully covered in bags and jackets,” he says.

“That picture will stay with me forever. I will never forget it.”

*Tomorrow: Derek Johnstone’s memories of the terrible events of January 2, 1971.