Today, two decades after 96 soccer fans died at Hillsborough, the families still seek the truth. Jeff Pickett reports
The shadow of 96 Liverpool fans will loom large over Anfield today as players, families of those killed, survivors and fans pay their respect to the victims of Hillsborough.
They say time is great healer, but for the families who lost sons, daughters and fathers at English football’s worst disaster — 20 years of unanswered questions, lies and injustice have gnawed away at the healing process.
Controversy continues to surround the circumstances leading up to the moment police opened the gate to allow thousands of fans to pour into the Leppings Lane End main pen.
Senior officer in charge that day, Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, immediately claimed drunken fans had forced the gate open. Subsequent public enquiries proved the police lies, but by that time many felt the damage had been done.
Anne Williams, who lost her 15-year-old son Kevin at the tragedy claimed these lies provided officials connected to Hillsborough the platform for further calumnies.
“The police started lying the moment the disaster unfolded and the system has allowed the coroner, courts and other senior officers to continue the lies.
“The relatives of those killed have been left to pick up the pieces and rebuild their lives with many not knowing how their loved ones died that day.”
Lord Justice Taylor claimed the police decision to open the gates was “a blunder of the first magnitude.”
He also stated in the August 1989 interim report: “The main reason for the disaster was the failure of police control.”
For the families of those killed, many feel their loss was exaggerated by a lack of justice — Sheffield Wednesday football club, Sheffield City Council and South Yorkshire Police all admitted errors in judgement that led to the disaster, but nobody was ever convicted.
Joan Tootle, who lost her 21-year-old son Peter at the game, said:
“All any of us have ever wanted is a little bit of justice, instead of hitting brick walls.
“I remember when the police came to my home and said: ‘take it from us Mrs Tootle, this will not be brushed under the carpet’ and it was and it is still being brushed under the carpet.
“Now until someone is man or woman enough to come out and say what happened, then it will still be brushed under the carpet until that day.”
The families had little time to grieve before The Sun ran headlines claiming drunken Liverpool fans were robbing and urinating on the dead. The inflammatory claims, which the newspaper admitted were not ‘the truth’ it had originally proclaimed, have led to a ban of the newspaper on Merseyside for two decades costing News International millions of pounds.
Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield and his deputy Bernard Murray, who oversaw the disaster, were both charged by the Police Complaints Authority with neglect of duty. Duckenfield retired from the force and the PCA felt it would be unfair to discipline Murray and dropped the charges against him. Both officers also faced a private prosecution at Leeds Crown Court as the family sought the justice they craved, but when the jury couldn’t reach a verdict on Duckenfield, Justice Hooper directed he would not have to face retrial. Both officers had been told beforehand they would not be jailed, even if convicted.
The most contentious issue of all has remained the coroner’s ruling that all 95 victims — it was four years later Tony Bland became the 96th when he slipped from coma into death — had died or suffered the injuries that would kill them by 3.15pm. Sheila Coleman of the Hillsborough Justice Campaign believes the coroner’s court began the cover up.
She said: “One could really argue it was the coroner’s court which really was the biggest cover up after the Hillsborough disaster.
“These people were all lumped together and it was said this is how they died and they all died the same way.
“It didn’t enquire in any way into the individual or the specifics of individuals and clearly most contentious was the fact the coroner imposed a 3.15pm cutoff, which meant that there would be no enquiry into events after 3.15pm on the day of the disaster.
“The significance of that was, that was when the emergency response was at its greatest, albeit an emergency response by survivors and fellow Liverpool fans.”
Joan Tootle paid for legal representation throughout the inquests but Peter’s death was not heard by the jury.
Distraught Joan said: “Peter wasn’t mentioned at the inquest. All I knew was that 95 were supposed to have died at all the same time, which in my mind was impossible.
“You’re there, its an inquest, you know you’ve got to be there for your son, but it doesn’t make sense because you don’t hear him. They don’t hear anything about him so what am I doing there? What am I actually doing here?
“I remember coming home and my lad saying to me ‘why are you killing yourselves? Why are you doing this to yourselves because you’re just killing yourselves every single day; you are going there and getting nothing at all out of it. So why do it?’ And I just said well his name might be mentioned.”
Anne Williams has continued to challenge the coroner’s claims through the UK courts and last week lost her fight to have her case heard in Europe.
“Seven people touched Kevin after 3.15pm and they all said he was alive,” she said. “But not one of these witnesses has ever been called to give evidence in any of Kevin’s inquests.
“He was the only one who had two mini inquests and none of them gave me any answers to what happened to Kevin. Parts of witness statements were used. “There so much confusion. They had hidden the fact he had a pulse away from the jury. “I didn’t know about the pulse until after the second mini inquest on Kevin. I think I would have challenged it then if I had known about the pulse.”
The sad fact is the Hillsborough stadium should never have been used in the first place, as the ground did not hold a valid safety certificate. The FA moved games from Hillsborough for six years after 38 Spurs fans suffered crush injuries during the 1981 semi final against Wolves.
Lord Taylor had also documented evidence of crushing in the pens during the 1987 and 1988 semi finals. Liverpool football club had objected about being allocated Leppings Lane after complaints of crushing the previous year.
Anne Williams added: “People want the truth; just give us the truth and clear the Liverpool fans’ names because people around the world still think the Liverpool fans caused the disaster, when they were the heroes that day.
“Kevin just didn’t die in an accident, he died through lack of care, their lack of care, and he was saveable.”