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