Belfast Telegraph

Home News UK

Tunnel failure 'led to fan deaths'

The Hillsborough police match commander has agreed that his failure to close a tunnel was the "direct cause" of the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans.

David Duckenfield, 70, accepted he "f roze" during the 1989 football disaster before he ordered the opening of an exit gate to relieve congestion outside the Leppings Lane turnstile.

The now retired police chief was responding to questions from Paul Greaney QC, representing the Police Federation, during his sixth day of evidence at the new Hillsborough inquests in Warrington, Cheshire.

Mr Greaney reminded Mr Duckenfield of his earlier evidence to Christina Lambert QC, counsel for the inquest, about his state of mind after the opening of Gate C when he told her: "It was a momentous decision and your decision is such that you do not think of the next step. My mind for a moment went blank."

Asked again if he had "froze", Mr Duckenfield said: "It appears to be a distinct possibility."

Mr Greaney said: "You know what was in your mind and I will ask just one last time. Will you accept that in fact you froze?"

"Yes sir," said Mr Duckenfield.

Mr Greaney went on: "Do you agree with the following, that people died in a crush in the central pens?"

Mr Duckenfield said: "Yes sir."

Mr Greaney said: "That if they had not been permitted to flow down the tunnel into those central pens that would not have occurred?"

The witness repeated: "Yes sir."

The barrister continued: "That closing the tunnel would have prevented that and therefore would have prevented the tragedy."

Mr Duckenfield said again: "Yes sir."

Mr Greaney said: "That you failed to recognise that there was a need to close that tunnel."

Mr Duckenfield said: "I did fail to recognise that sir."

Mr Greaney said: "And therefore failed to take steps to achieve that."

Mr Duckenfield replied: "I did sir."

Mr Greaney said: "That failure was the direct cause of the deaths of 96 persons in the Hillsborough tragedy."

Mr Duckenfield said: "Yes sir."

Up to 2,000 fans entered Gate C, with many heading straight for a tunnel in front of them which Mr Duckenfield had not ordered to be closed and then on to the already full central pens on the terrace which led to the fatal crushing.

During his earlier evidence, Mr Duckenfield denied he "bottled it" and "simply froze" during the FA Cup semi-final tie.

He claimed he was unaware of the geography of Sheffield Wednesday's ground, this being his first match in charge.

Mr Greaney said: "Do you agree that never mind a competent match commander it might only take a child of average intelligence to realise what the consequences of your actions might be?"

Mr Duckenfield replied: "I did not think of it on the day, sir, because of the pressure I was under."

The inquests have heard that Mr Duckenfield told the 1989 Taylor Inquiry into the disaster that he had made the right decisions on the day but he now accepted that he had made errors - some of which were "grave".

He has told the jury that his serious failings were due to his lack of experience and that others also played their part in the cause of the deaths.

Mr Duckenfield agreed with Mr Greaney that it was "totally unacceptable" that a match commander "did not have a grip on the geography of that ground sufficient to enable you to understand the consequences of your decision making".

He also accepted that when giving evidence to Lord Justice Taylor it appeared that he was aware that the congested Leppings Lane turnstiles did lead to the central tunnel.

Mr Duckenfield said he did not want to go into detail about his "personal circumstances" - he has previously said he suffered post-traumatic stress - but he may have been "confused" when giving evidence in 1989.

Mr Greaney told the court that another officer who was in the police control box, who was operating the CCTV cameras, had earlier told the jury that he thought Mr Duckenfield was "not a leader in that control room during that critical period".

Mr Greaney asked Mr Duckenfield: "Do you agree that (the officer) was describing a match commander who had frozen?"

Mr Duckenfield said: "It is a possibility, sir, but that is his view and I cannot comment further."

Mr Greaney said: "Can you not tell us whether on that day in that situation you simply froze?"

The witness replied: "Sir, I think it is fair to say that we were all in a state of shock."

Mr Greaney said: "You were the one whose job it was to get past any feelings of shock, do you agree?"

Mr Duckenfield said: "Yes, sir, but I am human."

Mr Greaney said: "Do you agree that you failed to offer any true leadership in that situation on that day?"

The witness replied: "That is not my view."

Mr Duckenfield agreed with Mr Greaney that it would be "disgraceful" and "cowardly" to try to shift blame for his own failings to officers under his own command.

The retired chief superintendent of South Yorkshire Police has previously said he had expected police officers on the perimeter track of the ground and those in the West Stand overlooking the Leppings Lane terrace pens to have kept an eye on monitoring the filling of them.

But he accepted they had not received formal instructions to do so.

John Beggs QC, representing Mr Duckenfield, outlined what he said were the three failures of his client that would exercise the jury.

Firstly, to prevent congestion building up to dangerous levels at the Leppings Lane turnstiles.

Secondly, the failure to delay the kick-off at any appropriate time and thirdly the "most serious failure" was that of failing to ensure the closing of the tunnel leading to the central pens.

Mr Beggs went on: "You accept you could have done more in the aftermath when it became obvious that there was a disaster unfolding."

"Yes sir," said Mr Duckenfield.

Mr Beggs continued: "But you do not accept that officers in front of the pens needed any specific direction in relation to the task of getting injured supporters out of the pens."

Mr Duckenfield said: "That is correct, sir."

Mr Beggs said: "I think the reason in your view is they would have exercised their natural wish to save life and limb?"

"Yes," replied the witness.

Mr Duckenfield agreed with Mr Beggs that it was his belief he had declared a major incident but accepted there was no record of such a direction.

The retired police chief accepted it would have been sensible to have made an earlier tannoy announcement about the fact there was a medical emergency.

He also accepted that an experienced match commander "probably would not have made at least some or perhaps any of those mistakes".

Mr Duckenfield agreed that he "buried his head in the sand" following the tragedy.

At the Taylor Inquiry weeks after the disaster he was asked about his reaction when he was told shortly before the hearing that he probably needed separate legal representation from South Yorkshire Police.

He told the jury: "I felt destroyed. I was quite shocked and extremely disappointed.

"I was of the view that that I was being represented by Mr Woodward (then Queen's Counsel for South Yorkshire Police) and probably I was a little naive. In all honesty it gave me no confidence whatsoever to think that I was walking into Lord Justice Taylor's inquiry somewhat naked, shall I say."

Mr Duckenfield agreed with his barrister that it was only in recent times that he had been able to come to terms with his mistakes and make the admissions he made to the jury last week.

Asked whether he had found it easy to admit his "professional failings which led to the deaths of 96 innocent men, women and children", Mr Duckenfield said: "It has been the most difficult period of my life."

The jury heard he had not revealed his mistakes to officers from Operation Resolve - the ongoing criminal investigation into the disaster - when he was interviewed last March under criminal caution in relation to "serious criminal offences".

Mr Beggs asked: "Rightly or wrongly, did you feel that was a good time to be making the admissions and the apologies that you have made over the last week?"

Mr Duckenfield replied: "I didn't think it was the right time, sir."

He told his barrister that in the lead up to the Taylor Inquiry no senior officer had told him he should accept at least some responsibility for the deaths, and that he had even gone on to command two matches at Hillsborough after the disaster.

The jury was told by Mr Duckenfield that South Yorkshire Police was not accepting any responsible for the disaster at the time the Taylor Inquiry began.

Mr Beggs said: "To what extent did you Mr Duckenfield, as it were, go along with that corporate line from on high?"

Mr Duckenfield replied: "Sir, I was an employee of South Yorkshire Police."

Mr Beggs told the inquests that his client did in fact apologise at Taylor for giving misleading remarks about the opening of the gates and that fans were to blame for causing disorder.

The barrister reminded the jury that Mr Duckenfield had told the Taylor inquiry: "My deepest sympathy goes out to them. I cannot say enough on that matter."

Mr Beggs asked his client: "Did that reflect that you were unable to then properly put into words how you were feeling?"

"Yes sir," said Mr Duckenfield.

Mr Beggs continued: "You understand why the delay in providing a more gracious and more full apology has caused to many both offence and distress?"

Mr Duckenfield replied: "I fully understand, sir."

Mr Beggs said: "You say you were in a state of denial by that stage (Taylor), you stand by that?"

The witness said: "I did, sir."

Mr Duckenfield confirmed he was not on medication at that time but had difficulty in sleeping.

Mr Beggs said: "Were you in fact in the lead up to your evidence drinking too much?"

Mr Duckenfield said: "Yes sir, I was rather foolish and too proud as a police officer to admit my failings. I clearly recall leading up to Lord Justice Taylor's inquiry sitting in an armchair one morning when the sun was coming through the window and I was drinking half tumblers of whiskey to find the courage to read the statements and that continued."

Following Lord Justice Taylor's interim findings on the tragedy in early August, Mr Duckenfield was suspended from duty on August 4, 1989.

He was later medically retired on November 10, 1991.

Mr Beggs said: "You were certified by the force doctor as unfit to undertake the duties of a police constable?"

"Yes sir," said Mr Duckenfield.

It emerged that Mr Duckenfield was diagnosed as having "severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder".

Mr Beggs said: "In late 1991, did you consider such a diagnosis to be a sign of weakness on your part?"

"I did, sir," said Mr Duckenfield.

His barrister continued: "Had you done your best to conceal your depression and your distress from your family and from police colleagues?"

Mr Duckenfield replied: "Yes, sir. It was a matter of pride."

Mr Beggs said: "Did you want to be retired?"

Mr Duckenfield said: "Not at all, sir."

Mr Beggs said: "You were ashamed by that retirement?"

Mr Duckenfield said: "Very ashamed, sir, and embarrassed by it all."

Mr Duckenfield went on to agree with Mr Beggs that his "terrible" lie about not opening the exit gate was such because it displaced responsibility on to the innocent, that everyone in the police control box and the fans who entered the gate were aware of the truth, and that it was captured on CCTV.

Mr Beggs said: "It was therefore a terrible lie because it was going to be found out, what is now obvious, very quickly indeed."

"Yes, sir," said Mr Duckenfield.

Mr Beggs said: "I want, in a sentence only if you can please, to tell this jury what that says about your state of mind when you told that lie."

Mr Duckenfield said: "I think quite simply sir I was not thinking correctly."

The witness will return to give evidence tomorrow.


From Belfast Telegraph