Hillsborough disaster - the cages of death
Twenty years on from the Hillsborough disaster, which claimed 96 fans’ lives, a Belfast academic, Phil Scraton, explains why the worst tragedy in British football was both foreseeable and avoidable
Considering all that has been written and broadcast about the Hillsborough disaster — plus the inquiries, inquests, civil actions, private prosecutions and campaigns — what happened on the 15 April 1989 at an FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest is not complex.
Jenni Hicks, whose daughters Sarah and Victoria both died, questions how, 'something so simple, so obvious, was turned into something so complicated'. It was also foreseeable and avoidable.
On a warm Spring day over 50,000 fans journeyed to an unfamiliar, old-fashioned ‘neutral’ stadium hired by the Football Association. Travelling by coach across the Pennines, Liverpool fans were stopped and searched by police. Arriving in Sheffield, they — and those arriving by train — were ‘corralled' by the South Yorkshire Police officers and escorted to the stadium.
Approaching Hillsborough a buoyant, happy crowd filled narrow streets but there was no filtering to stagger arrival. Policing was viewed exclusively through a lens of hooliganism — the South Yorkshire Police operational order made no mention of safety or emergency procedures.
Old-style, malfunctioning turnstiles could not process the volume of traffic, causing a frightening crush at the notorious Leppings Lane bottleneck. Three years earlier an internal police memorandum warned that the ‘turnstiles do not give anything like the access to the ground needed by fans.'
Police officers were untrained in crowd management or safety. Custom and practice was infected by complacency graphically illustrated by a senior officer who commented that fans should be left to 'find their own level'. Medical cover was provided solely by St John's Ambulance volunteers.
Desperate to relieve the situation outside, a senior officer radioed the inexperienced match commander, Chief Superintendent Duckenfield, to open exit gates and bypass the turnstiles. The police control box was inside the ground, above the Leppings Lane terrace. CCTV monitors showed the severe congestion outside. Duckenfield also had a close-up view of the packed central pens. In easing the life-threatening crush at the turnstiles, a worse situation could develop on the terrace. He agreed to the request and the opened gates brought instant relief outside.
Fans walked into the stadium neither stewarded nor policed. A steep tunnel led down to the two packed, central pens. It did not occur to Duckenfield and his officers to close the tunnel gates and redirect incoming fans to the half-empty side pens.
Not realising the imminent danger, 2,000 fans entered the tunnel. Compression in the pens was immediate. Fans were trapped — no way back, forward or sideways. Faces were jammed against the perimeter fence, and in one pen a barrier, close to the bottom, collapsed bringing down a tangled mass of bodies. At kick-off the screams of the dying were drowned by the thunderous roar of the crowd. As fans tried to climb the perimeter fences to escape police officers forced them back.
Failure to close the tunnel before opening the exit gates was compounded by the failure to respond immediately and effectively to the distress in the pens. Once the police eventually opened the two narrow gates onto the perimeter track the full horror was revealed. Over 500 people were dead, dying or injured. The match was abandoned at 3.06pm.
Seemingly oblivious to the mayhem in his eye-line, Duckenfield concluded a ‘pitch invasion' was under way. He summoned reinforcements, including dog handlers. Then he told FA Chief Executive Graham Kelly, that fans had forced entry and rushed the pens. Unwittingly, Kelly transmitted the lie to the awaiting media. As the disaster was happening Liverpool fans were blamed.
On the pitch fans tore down advertising hoardings to carry the dead and dying. The inter-agency emergency plan failed. Only 14 of those who died made it to hospital. Eighty-two fans were laid out in body bags on the Hillsborough gymnasium floor. Polaroid photographs of the dead were pinned up in the foyer. Throughout the night bereaved relatives scanned the photographs, identified their loved ones — in body bags — brought on trolleys to the gymnasium door. No touching, no caressing — the bodies now ‘the property of the Coroner'.
Following Duckenfield's lie, the Coroner recorded blood alcohol levels of all victims including children — unprecedented in a disaster. The inference being, that through their actions they might be culpable. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was briefed by the police that a 'tanked-up mob' had rushed the stadium. Several newspapers, most notoriously The Sun, published unsubstantiated allegations from police off-the-record briefings that Liverpool fans had beaten, and urinated on, police officers administering first aid and had stolen from the dead.
Within months, Lord Justice Taylor's public inquiry established overcrowding as the ‘main cause' of the disaster and police mismanagement as the ‘main reason'. ‘Hooliganism' had played no part and the police, particularly Duckenfield, had ‘lacked candour'. Yet the allegations persisted, re-emerging at the inquests and all subsequent legal proceedings.
In 1998, having researched Hillsborough for nine years, I met a former police officer whose initial statement, made in the immediate aftermath, had been changed. Eventually, I accessed all police statements. Nothing prepared me for what I uncovered.
Immediately after the disaster the South Yorkshire Chief Constable, Peter Wright, appointed an internal team whose collective responsibility included ‘reviewing' all police statements and, in collaboration with the Force solicitors, ‘altering' the content.
I read all versions of all statements. Sentences were deleted, words added and officers ‘invited' to ‘reconsider' specified paragraphs. Criticisms of the police response to the disaster were deleted, deflecting blame towards fans. Worse still, I found that the investigating force, the Coroner, Lord Justice Taylor, the Official Solicitor and the Home Office were aware of the process.
Hillsborough was avoidable and foreseeable, the tragic consequence of neglectful custom and practice combined with institutional complacency. The suffering of the bereaved and survivors was heightened by their treatment at the gymnasium, by the vilification of fans, and by the inadequacy of the inquiries and investigations. Add to that the systemic corruption of police evidence.
Peter Joynes, whose son Nick died, comments, ‘Given all the evidence, it's impossible to believe or bear 20 years on no-one is held responsible for one of sport's biggest disasters'. It also defies reason that while many stadiums have undergone rebuilding, the safety of other venues — such as Windsor Park — remains compromised on big match nights.
Professor Phil Scraton PhD is in the School of Law, Queen's University Belfast. He is author of Hillsborough: The Truth, Mainstream, £9.99