Justice : The Hillsborough Disaster

Yesterday marked the 27th anniversary of the Hillsborough Disaster.  On 15th April 1989, ninety six men, women and children attended the FA Cup semi-final match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough stadium, and never returned home.

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Events began to unfold from around 1430 on what was a bright and sunny day. The game was to be a repeat of the 1988 semi-final, in which Liverpool had faced Nottingham Forest at the same venue.

Liverpool fans had begun arriving at the ground from midday, but had to enter their designated stand at Leppings Lane through a small number of decrepit turnstiles.

Once inside, many made their way on to the terraced lower stand which was ringed with blue-painted steel fences and laterally divided into five separate “pens”.

Fencing had been put up by many football clubs during the 1970s and 80s to control crowds and prevent pitch invasions.

By about 1450, pens 3 and 4 – those directly behind the goal – were full, but outside the ground thousands of fans were still waiting to get in.

The pens’ official combined capacity was 2,200. It was later discovered that this should have been reduced to 1,600 as crush barriers installed three years earlier did not meet official safety standards.

At 1452, police ordered a large exit gate – Gate C – to be opened to alleviate the crush outside the ground. Around 2,000 fans then made their way into the ground and headed straight for a tunnel leading directly to pens 3 and 4.

This influx caused severe crushing in the pens. Fans began climbing over side fences into the relatively less packed pens 1 and 5 to escape.

It was later estimated that more than 3,000 supporters were admitted to the central pens – almost double the “safe” capacity.

At 1500, the game kicked off. Five minutes later a crush barrier in pen 3 gave way, causing people to fall on top of each other.

Supporters continued to climb perimeter fences to escape, while others were dragged to safety by fans in the upper tiers.

At 1506, a policeman ran on to the pitch and ordered the referee to stop the game. In the chaotic aftermath, supporters tore up advertising hoardings to use as makeshift stretchers and tried to administer first aid to the injured.

The authorities’ response to the disaster was slow and badly co-ordinated. Firefighters with cutting gear had difficulty getting into the ground, and although dozens of ambulances were dispatched, access to the pitch was delayed because police were reporting “crowd trouble”.

Of the 96 people who died, only 14 were ever admitted to hospital.

In his interim report on 4 August 1989, Lord Justice Taylor wrote that the key element of the disaster was failure in police control but inquests into the deaths of the victims returned a majority verdict of accidental death.  Specifically to blame was Police Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, the senior police officer responsible for the match who ordered Gate C to be opened before later claiming that Liverpool supporters forced it open themselves.

Other publications also laid the blame purely at the feet of Liverpool fans. On 19 April, four days after the disaster, Kelvin MacKenzie, editor of The Sun, used “THE TRUTH” as the front page headline, followed by three sub-headlines: “Some fans picked pockets of victims”, “Some fans urinated on the brave cops” and “Some fans beat up PC giving kiss of life”.

Liverpool fans have campaigned for justice ever since, not believing the findings of previous enquires only examining events up until 1515 on the day of the disaster because, after that time, it was assumed that all the victims would either be dead or brain dead.

In 2009, Minister Andy Durnham raised the matter at Cabinet and three months later the Home Office announced full disclosure of all information, to be looked at by the Hillsborough Independent Panel.  The panel’s report in 2012 vindicated families and criticised police for diverting blame onto the fans. Prime Minister David Cameron in the Commons offered a “profound apology” for the “double injustice”.

The report’s key findings were:

• Police carried out criminal record checks on deceased to ‘impugn reputations’.
• Senior officers privately discussed ‘animalistic behaviour’ of ‘drunken marauding fans’.
• New evidence suggests dozens survived past 3.15pm inquest cut-off point.
116 of the 164 South Yorkshire Police statements were doctored to remove words such as “chaos” and “panic” while criticism of the lack of leadership and radio orders were also deleted.
• South Yorkshire Ambulance Service evidence was misleading.
• No evidence to support police account that fans were drunk and aggressive.
• Margaret Thatcher expressed concern in Cabinet that the first inquiry into the disaster contained ‘devastating criticism of the police’.
• Weight placed on blood alcohol levels among the dead was ‘inappropriate’.
• The Sun’s allegations originated from police and a local MP.

From a football disaster, what has been found is possibly the greatest institutional coverup in British history.  In December 2012, the High Court quashed the accidental death verdicts in the original inquests and orders new inquests. The same day, Home Secretary Theresa May announces a new criminal probe to investigate “all of the people and organisations involved – before, on, and after” the disaster.

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These new inquests began at Birchwood Park, Warrington in 2014.  At the start of the inquests, Lord Justice Goldring read the names of the 96 in court before swearing in a jury of seven men and four women.  After 267 days of evidence, the new inquests reached the summing up by the coroner.  Goldring told the jury they will answer questions in 14 sections about how the deaths were caused, including a possible verdict of unlawful killing based on whether Duckenfield’s acts or omissions amounted to gross negligence manslaughter.

Justice won’t bring back those who lost their lives, but it will provide some closure for their relatives left behind.

When you walk through a storm
Hold your head up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark
At the end of the storm
There’s a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of a lark

Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
Though your dreams be tossed and blown

Walk on walk on with hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone
You’ll never walk alone

When you walk through a storm
Hold your head up high
And don’t be afraid of the dark
At the end of the storm
Is a golden sky
And the sweet silver song of the lark

Walk on through the wind
Walk on through the rain
Though your dreams be tossed and blown

Walk on walk on with hope in your heart
And you’ll never walk alone
You’ll never walk

You’ll never walk
You’ll never walk alone

You’ll Never Walk Alone by Gerry And The Pacemakers

Comments 3

  1. Richard M

    A great post.
    Howvere, for “Gerry and the Pacemakers” please attribute (correctly) to Rogers And Hammerstein, who created this moving piece for the film “Carousel”.

    • Indeed, you’re right. The version that plays at Liverpool matches is performed by Gerry and the Pacemakers, hence that citation because I usually put the performers rather than the writers.

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