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YORKSHIRE - AYUP ONLINE MAGAZINE
 

Haunted by the Memory

Eleven years on from the Hillsborough Stadium disaster of 15th April 1989 two former policemen have been tried for manslaughter in a private prosecution that cost millions. The men walked free and the judge refused a retrial.
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For football fans it is a moment etched in the memory. Never to be forgotten. The moment we heard the news. 96 lives were lost in a crush of people at an FA Cup Semi-final football match taking place at the Hillsborough Stadium, Sheffield. The moment we'll never forget. The moment when the game stopped.

Eleven years on and the disaster is once again back in the news. Two former Policemen were tried at Leeds Crown Court for the manslaughter of two of the victims, in a case brought by the Hillsborough Family Support Group. It was a last legal attempt to bring someone to book for the catalogue of errors that allowed a disaster to happen. To achieve some form of closure. The six-week case failed. The jury acquitted one man and could not reach a decision on a second. Finally the judge ruled that the case was over and there would be no retrial.

The occasion was supposed to be one of celebration, as Liverpool FC and Nottingham Forest met in an FA Cup semi Final at a neutral ground in Sheffield. It was a beautiful sunny day in the spring of 1989. The turnstiles at the ground had opened at 12 noon, three hours before kick-off and the atmosphere was good-natured. However somewhere between 2.30 and 2.50pm a crush grew as two Leppings Lane turnstiles struggled to cope with thousands of fans trying to gain access to the ground. Police, fearing fatalities, tried to close perimeter gates so that pressure on the turnstiles could be relieved. It seemed to make things worse. The gates were opened again.

The perimeter fence of Hillsborough Stadium on Leppings Lane. Photograph by kind permission of the Dave Milners Picture Archive
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At 2.52pm the Police Superintendent on duty received permission to open a gate into the ground, Gate C, and did so. In five minutes around 2,000 fans moved through this gate at a brisk walk, most heading straight down the tunnel directly ahead which led at a gradient of 1 in 6 to a tightly fenced pen of terracing in the lower West Stand. An area already completely full. The gradient and momentum created a domino effect as thousands lost their footing and became unable to control momentum or direction. Unchecked, more and more behind were swept into the long dark funnel of a tunnel beneath the West Stand. Stewards and Police at pitchside at first seemed to see the situation as a public order problem and pushed escaping fans back over the high perimeter fence.

Fans spoke of being swept through, feet completely off the ground. Pressure became unbearable People became crushed against crash barriers and high metal fences at the front of the pen. The game kicked off as planned at 3pm. Six minutes later the referee halted the game and the police control room overlooking the pens abandoned what they perceived as a crowd control problem and confronted a major disaster.

The causes of the tragedy were not "drunken hooligans" as portrayed by Kelvin McKenzie's London tabloid. Just thousands of ordinary big city soccer fans arriving late after delays on the motorways, at coach parks and the railway station. No-one felt it necessary to delay the kick off, resulting in fans redoubling efforts to gain entrance to the match (Just the week before, some Liverpool fans had missed a game's opening goal due to late arrival). A decision was made to relieve the congestion by opening a large gate, but no effort was made to seal off entrances and redirect fans to safer areas, decisions that had serious and fatal consequences. This was compounded by the slowness of officers to react to the crush inside the two pens (overlooked by a police control tower) and the failure to mobilise a major incident plan for the stadium until it was far too late.

The rear of the Hillsborough West Stand as seen during Euro96
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"The biggest question of all is stark in its simplicity. How was it possible, after all the previous disasters, inquiries, working parties, reports, recommendations and Acts of Parliament, for almost a hundred people to be crushed to death in a football ground which had a good safety record and was not full to capacity, while only a few yards away other spectators were moving around with room to spare? Hillsborough was no Heysel because there was no riot, it was not a Bradford because there was no fire, it was not an Ibrox because there was no crush of fans going in opposite directions and it was not a Bolton because the ground as a whole was not overwhelmed by weight of numbers.

English football grounds are many times safer than they were in the rickety days immediately after the Second World War but the capacity for human error and faulty judgements in a crisis is undiminished. Hillsborough has proved that."

DAVID LACEY

writing in The Guardian Newspaper
Monday April 17th 1989
(two days after the tragedy)

 

These failures were compounded by official emphasis on crowd control over basic crowd safety. To make matters worse after the incident Police and FA Officials made statements that set the tabloid press into a frenzy of mistruth and lies about what happened. Fans themselves were demonised to such a degree that Coroners took blood samples from the dead to check alcohol consumption. Inquests took place in an atmosphere of blame and recrimination with the surviving Liverpool fans with nowhere to turn for support. Behind the scenes, we now hear, South Yorkshire Police embarked on a process which reviewed and altered their officers' written recollections.

The astounding thing is that this was not the first time that the West Stand of Hillsborough Stadium had seen an overcrowding crisis. Back in 1981 the Wolves v Spurs FA Cup semi-final was played at Hillsborough. Fans were routed into Sheffield shepherded by a massive police operation designed to keep rival fans apart - an operation that ensured that Wolves fans had the then enormous open bank while Spurs , despite having the bigger following were allocated the much smaller West Stand area.

Here problems in the pens occurred well before kick-off as it became clear that there was massive overcrowding in the Spurs end. People were being pressed tight against the metal fences Police then allowed effected supporters out of the enclosure, where some watched the match from pitchside. One or two were treated by the St Johns Ambulance but luckily there were no serious injuries. The Football Association however were concerned enough to move FA Cup Semi-final matches away from the ground for six years.

The management of a major sporting event is a complex procedure involving commercial organisations, sporting bodies, police, fire, health and ambulance authorities and governmental departments. That it all came down to blame and scapegoating is a failure of all of these officials. 96 people did not lose their lives because of the actions of just two people. Factors such as resource allocations, neglect of safety issues, communication failure, cost pressures, emergency procedures, crisis management procedures, all played a part.

LINKS

But at Leeds Crown Court two former policemen were in the dock charged with the manslaughter by gross negligence of two of the tragedy's victims. John Anderson, aged 62, and James Gary Aspinall aged 18. The men charged were former South Yorkshire Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield (in charge if policing the match) and former Superintendent Bernard Murray also in charge of police operations that day. Witnesses during the case included former chief executive Graham Kelly, police officers on duty, and survivors of the crush.

The jury found Bernard Murray not guilty and failed to reach a verdict in the case against David Duckenfield. The judge, Justice Hooper stayed the two charges of manslaughter and told Leeds Crown Court "I do not in any way underestimate the suffering of those who lost their loved ones at Hillsborough and the many others whose lives were so deeply affected by the events of that day, I have an overriding duty to ensure a fair trial for the defendant. That, I am firmly convinced, is no longer possible."

The families have now exhausted all legal channels and face huge legal bills. The memory of the 96 and the terrible events of 15th April 1989 will no longer be heard in a court room. No-one will be brought to book for the events at Hillsborough. A Police spokesman was heard to say to the media "The crush which caused the deaths is almost impossible to imagine now". For the sake of those who died at Hillsborough and those whose lives were changed forever by it, we hope that those in charge of our safety and welfare DO imagine it could happen and move heaven and earth to ensure that it never will.

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" It was something that did not occur to me at the time. I only wish it had. I am haunted by the memories that if I had cordoned off the tunnel it might have saved lives. That is the way I have felt ever since.
I feel great sympathy for the people I see in court every day. I know a lot of them must blame me.
I just hope they can be a little understanding because it does effect me. I do feel a sense of responsibility."

BERNARD MURRAY

former Superintendent and, second in command at Hillsborough. Speaking to the court during his trial for Manslaughter at Leeds Crown Court, July 11th 2000

Croatia supporters during Euro96, viewed from the front of the Lower West Stand of Hillsborough. By 1996 Hillsborough, like all major British football stadia, had been transformed into a fully seated arena. The area at the front of the stand now has no wall or perimeter fencing and the area continues to host travelling supporters of teams visiting Sheffield Wednesday Football Club.
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Phil O'Connor

 

MEMORIAL

 

A Sheffield

memorial for

the 96.


A memorial to the 96 victims was unveiled last spring at the Sheffield stadium where disaster struck.
After ten years of waiting. Why on earth did we have to wait so long?
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On 11th May 1987, the day after an emotional rock concert at at Anfield in memory of the Hillsborough disaster, fans crossed the Pennines to see Liverpool play Sheffield Wednesday, the last league game of the season. Guests of our county returning to the scene of the blackest day in British football history. To seats in the very same spot where the disaster unfolded. To a place where there was nothing to commemorate the victims. Many who came to the ground that day were survivors of that terrible day. Others were friends and relations of the 96 victims.

The behaviour of our South Yorkshire Police that afternoon made me deeply ashamed to be a Yorkshireman. Bereaved families and friends had floral tributes confiscated by policemen who considered them an offensive weapon.

Roses.

Bunches of roses to lay at the spot where 96 died the most terrible death. To pay respects.

Confiscated.

That this happened again the following February in the corresponding fixture was an act of provocation and insensitivity that beggars belief. Never mind that South Yorkshire Police and the Sheffield Wednesday staff were well aware of the depth of feelings involved on that spring afternoon. Never mind the Force's own involvement in unfolding events back in 1989. Never mind that the actual game was sponsored by the Sun newspaper, which in '89 accused supporters of 'Killing their own' 'robbing the dead' and 'urinating on brave coppers' under the headline "The Truth".

During the Euro96 tournament policing around Hillsborough's West Stand had been so so different. Fans roared on support for Davor Suker's Croatia against Denmark festooned with all manner of "offensive weaponry" (flags and banners) , some standing on the edge of an unfenced balcony. A small blond hatless police woman could be seen right in the middle of the crowd calming the situation, with great success. The occasion was a football festival and the organisation on that day immaculate and friendly. The game turned out to be the finest of the tournament and one of the best games ever seen at Hillsborough in it's 100 year history.

One thing that was not in evidence however was any kind of memorial at the stadium. Nowhere for us, as football fans, to pay our respects. Many who walked down the fateful tunnel and into the sunshine on the lower West Stand told me they had said a little prayer for the dead as they took their seats. The Owls fan in front of me, who normally took his seat in the "home" stand opposite, was deeply moved to be watching the game from such a spot.

The ten years since the tragedy have seen official statements, silence and inaction that were not just insulting to those immediately connected to the events of 15th April 1989 but to anyone who loves the game of football. From the 200+ Liverpool fans who were injured inside the ground, 500 more effected by it in other ways, the SWFC stewards, the rescue services who were unable to gain access to help, the players on the pitch, the stadium ground staff, the doctors and nurses at the hospital, the ordinary coppers failing in extraordinary circumstances, the horrified friends and relatives watching on TV screens at home...and all who still shed a tear as they remember. Insulted by the silence and inertia of officialdom.

Because the effects of a disaster of this magnitude go very wide indeed. There are those who experience the disaster directly, relatives and friends of victims, rescue and recovery workers, people in the local community who share the loss and grief, witnesses and helpers, others who but for lucky chance would have been involved themselves. This is where officialdom should adopt a more sympathetic and responsive attitude to those involved, not just avoid the issue, look after their own and expect everyone to forgive and forget and move on.

South Yorkshire Police, The Football Association, Sheffield Wednesday officials, Conservative and Labour government ministers. All failed to accept corporate/collective responsibility and still leave us with the sense that justice has not been done. The Taylor Report , commissioned in the aftermath of the disaster, reported a "general malaise or blight over the game" back in 1990. For all the flashy stadia and huge wages in football today the welfare and opinion of the ordinary fan still feels marginal and unimportant ten years on. Confidence in footballs officials is no more in evidence now, in our expensively stewarded plastic seating, than when we were herded around like cattle into barbed wire pens.

The announcement in February 1999 that there would be a lasting monument to the Hillsborough tragedy in Sheffield was long overdue but very welcome. A garden and plaque by the main access bridge to Hillsborough has been dedicated to the victims following 10 years of protesting from bereaved families. It was unveiled before Mays league fixture between Sheffield Wednesday, a few weeks after the disaster's 10 year anniversary. Floral tributes were laid and 96 seats were left empty before the game - a single red rose placed on each one. Bishop of Sheffield, the Rt Rev Jack Nicholls, led a minute's silence. It was a game boycotted by many Liverpool fans in protest at the lack of a memorial and the treatment of fans during preceding years.

It seemed that someone in SWFC officialdom finally recognised that the Hillsborough Stadium disaster was felt not just in Liverpool but across the country. It seemed the very least that the club could do. But we needed to be doing far more than the very least.

A view from the front of the West Stand of Hillsborough during the Euro96 football tournament, where the terracing and fences have been replaced by open seating.
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