Twenty years after the Hillsborough disaster claimed the lives of 96 Liverpool fans, James Lawton hears the story of one family's long campaign for a simple apology
It cannot be 20 years, not 20 years since all that muffled death accumulated in the spring sunshine and nothing was more terrible than the inevitability of it, the lack of care it first implied and then confirmed in the ghastly gymnasium turned mortuary where they pinned the Polaroid portraits on a noticeboard after laying the bodies across the floor.
April 15, 1989 – it can't be 20 years because all the details of the folly and the faces and the anger are still so vivid.
Some of the police – who were so leaderless that day at Hillsborough football stadium they could be seen standing idly in groups as the cause of disaster, which was allowing too many people into a section of the ground fatally lacking sufficient space, was building around the growing crush at the Leppings Lane gate 20 minutes before the kick-off – were paid compensation for the trauma they suffered when 96 innocent people died.
When those awards were made there was rage among the bereaved of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, and, surely, anyone who was there that day and touched by a horror that will never be expunged, but it spent itself quickly enough because there was a bigger issue to pursue.
In their lounge in Prince Albert Avenue, St Helens, Peter and Patricia Joynes tell you once more something they have been saying for two decades now.
They will never be able to rest truly, or even begin what they consider the proper process of grieving for their son Nicholas all these years after his death until that issue is resolved in the only way that could possibly bring them some peace.
It is not an elaborate demand they share, utterly, with all the other bereaved of Hillsborough. It is not, at least in their view, entangled in legalities or any necessary fear of the consequences. What they want is simply recognition that mistakes were made by people entrusted with the safety of the public. They want, as brief as you like, an expression of sorrow from that quarter. They want to hear, on official lips, the phrase "We are sorry."
"Until we hear that," says Peter Joynes, a retired builder, "we cannot put this down. We do not want to see police officers thrown into jail.
"We're not hunting down scapegoats. But we do know how we would feel if we agreed finally that it was time to put Hillsborough into the past, and make what we can of the rest of our lives, even though there have been no admissions of responsibility. We would feel as though we had betrayed our son – and I know this is how everyone else who lost loved ones that day feels. It is why we cannot walk away."
Nicholas Joynes had recently graduated from university with an engineering degree and was newly married when he bought his ticket and went with a friend to the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest.
It cannot be 20 years since he died because, if that was how long, it was how can the Joynes retrace in such haunting detail the terrible hours, even minutes, from the moment they heard the first reports of problems in the crowd at Hillsborough to the confirmation their son was dead?
For Peter Joynes it is a nightmare that can come back to him at any time of the day – and still, regularly, in his sleep. "I am always going to the ground and trying to get Nicholas out. He was a great joy to me."
Patricia Joynes, who ironically is a native of Sheffield and moved to Merseyside with her husband when he took up a new post, was working at her part-time job at Marks & Spencer when she first heard, shortly after the kick-off time of 3pm, that play had been stopped because of "incidents" off the field. "At first," she says, "I wasn't too bothered. In those days there always seemed to be a bit of trouble at football but I never worried about Nicholas. He loved football and played for Bootle Boys with Tommy Caton, who became a professional with Manchester City."
By 3.30pm, however, she was much less sanguine. The first ambulances had been seen on the field and there were reports of loss of life. She called Peter and asked him to take her home. By now he had an emergency number to call but each time he dialled he heard only the busy signal that is now a part of his nightmare.
They could, though, call their Sheffield relatives and each time they did so they prayed that they would be told that Nicholas had made his way to safety and was sitting down drinking a cup of tea. The torment of deciding whether to drive to Sheffield or stay beside the phone stretched until 6pm, when a friend called to say that Nicholas had been sighted. Nicholas was safe.
"Suddenly we felt very hungry," Peter reports. "Patricia went into the kitchen to cook a meal and I went round to the off-licence and bought a bottle of wine. It was St Emilion." Peter was about to uncork the wine he would never taste when the phone rang again. It wasn't Nicholas who had been sighted. Nicholas wasn't safe.
It was then that they drove to Sheffield, along with Nicholas's father-in-law, Jim, and a friend, Ian Price. At the hospital they were handed lists on which Nicholas's name did not appear. Price was taken to the intensive care unit, where 14 of the seriously injured were being treated. Nicholas wasn't there.
Peter Joynes was then told to follow a social worker who was driving back to the makeshift mortuary at the ground. The Joynes still shudder when they recount the scene – the Polaroid pictures which showed the agony of death, the bodies in their lines and, periodically, the moans and shrieks which came when one of them was identified by a father or a mother or a brother, a sister or a wife or a husband. When Price reported that a friend had pointed out to him the picture of Nicholas, Patricia insisted that she identify her son's body.
She did so because Nicholas was not the first son she had lost. Mark died in a car crash in South Africa and because of custom regulations the coffin had been closed when it was flown home and Patricia did not see his body. "I wanted proof this time," she says. "Maybe it was irrational but at the time it seemed like the most important thing because I had never been quite able to believe that Mark had died."
But then if Patricia was given the evidence that Nicholas was dead, she still awaits that aid to some closure on the worst of her grief that in the case of Mark was eventually received from the hospital authorities in South Africa. "They wrote to say that, as we had suspected, medical negligence had indeed contributed to Mark's death," says Peter. "That didn't give us our son back but it did mean that someone had accepted some responsibility. He had not died, perhaps as unnecessarily as Nicholas, without someone being made accountable."
There have been so many times when the Joynes and their allies believed that some atonement was close. How could it be otherwise when the Government-ordered Taylor Report so emphatically placed the burden of blame on the disorganisation of the South Yorkshire police? When one dispassionate witness, an ambulance driver, reported his frustration at being denied quick access to a football field that had been given over to nothing, it seemed, but the recovery of the untended dead? Or when unbreakable evidence demolished the claims of Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, the commanding officer who plainly had insufficient experience for the job that had gone so tragically wrong and to which he was appointed in the most disturbing circumstances?
Duckenfield said that Gate C had not been catastrophically opened by the police, allowing a fatal surge into overcrowded pens which, like the rest of the ground, lacked a current safety certificate, but smashed down by unruly fans. His retraction cost him nothing – and gave the bereaved nothing.
Home Secretaries Douglas Hurd and Jack Straw formally closed the book on the tragedy. A judge appointed to re-examine the evidence concurred with the politicians not the aggrieved, and this was no surprise to Peter Joynes when he met a jurist who did not seem, at least to him, in the mood to retrace the old ground vigorously.
Nine years ago Joynes sat among the bereaved at Leeds Crown Court every day for five weeks when Duckenfield and his No 2 Bernard Murray finally appeared in the dock of a privately launched prosecution for manslaughter. Murray was found not guilty and the jury failed to reach a verdict on Duckenfield. When the Joynes drove home across the Pennines they feared again the ache that had never dulled in 11 years might never go away.
Joynes said then, "In court I found myself looking into the eyes of the jury. They were working-class people like me and I was hoping against hope they would be able to sift through that evidence and see that something was so badly wrong, that there should be some accountability for all those lost lives."
His anger is invariably reinforced when he remembers that the Taylor report recommended disciplinary action against senior police officers – and that the most senior on duty that day, Duckenfield, was allowed to retire on full pension for health reasons, shortly before he took up new employment as secretary of a local golf club.
That development still gnaws at Joynes, but it is the circumstances of Duckenfield's appointment as commanding officer of the Hammerton Road police station, which automatically put him in charge of Hillsborough safety without any significant experience, that causes him most angst. "In my opinion, the replacement of the experienced Chief Superintendent Brian Mole, who was suddenly transferred to Barnsley, by Duckenfield, is the key to everything. Duckenfield simply wasn't up to the job and when the pressure mounted at the Leppings Lane end everything went haywire."
Mole was dispatched to Barnsley so quickly because of a disciplinary scandal that seeped out under his watch. Five officers were suspended – though no prosecutions ensued – when a constable was summoned to what he was told was a scene of a suspected break-in. When he arrived, he was seized by masked men who put guns to his head and demanded he lie down. He then had his trousers pulled down. Eventually the attackers took off their masks and put away what proved to be air pistols, and revealed themselves to be fellow police officers who had hugely enjoyed the prank.
Twenty-four-old PC Ian Bailey was so traumatised his enraged father made protests that went all the way to Home Secretary Hurd. The Crown Prosecution announced that criminal charges would be "inappropriate". However, a price had to be paid – by Barnsley-bound Chief Superintendent Mole and, the bereaved of Hillsborough assert, 96 victims – the youngest 10, the oldest 67 – who were denied properly experienced care.
"I keep being drawn back to this incident because I believe if it hadn't happened our son would still be alive," says Joynes. "The man in charge of Hillsborough would have known what to do when the cameras sent back pictures of dangerous overcrowding, when pressure was building so obviously at the Leppings Lane end. The incident that caused the transfer of a senior officer was a shocking one, but less so than the fact that in a very direct way it contributed to the loss of so many innocent lives, my son's included. So of course it leaves you bitter."
Nine years ago Joynes fought that bitterness when he came home from Leeds Crown Court. "At least we have sent some huge messages to the police," he said. "We have exposed the changing of evidence and surely after this no Home Secretary will ever again permit one police authority to be investigated by another. Justice failed us in many ways, but not completely. We got certain things on the record and perhaps Nicholas and the others didn't die entirely in vain."
He sounded then like a man who wanted more than anything to staunch the pain. Today, though, and no doubt next week when he attends another anniversary service at Anfield, an older priority has been put back in place.
He continues, with regained commitment, to cry out for the moment when someone says sorry. There have been too many betrayals, he believes, for him to add still another one.