At 2:45 p.m. on April 15, 1989, a queue waited to get into a football match. It was a big game, an FA Cup semifinal, but there was nothing much unusual about the day or the venue.
Half an hour later, bodies lay prone on a pitch where a sporting contest should have been taking place. The dead and injured were being dragged from the terraces. Corpses lay at the back of the stand. Hillsborough was no longer just a stadium. It was the name of a disaster.
It has taken 27 years to get to the truth of this nightmarish afternoon. The second round of inquests into the 96 deaths that resulted from that day has ruled that the deceased were unlawfully killed. The original inquest said the fatalities were accidental deaths. That enraged the relatives of the victims and those who witnessed what happened. This was no accident. Hillsborough was a calamitous failure of police and emergency service procedures.
Within 30 minutes of the disaster unfolding, senior police officers knew they had made catastrophic errors. Their response was to deflect the blame and claim the deaths were the responsibility of disorderly fans. It was a story all too easy for the British public to accept. Throughout the 1980s, hooliganism had blighted the game. Liverpool supporters, in particular, were easy to smear. After all, their actions had played a major part in the Heysel disaster at the 1985 European Cup final against Juventus, when 39 people were killed. High-ranking politicians and police officers at Hillsborough briefed journalists that Liverpool fans robbed the dead and urinated on police trying to help the injured. It was an outrageous lie.
It’s one that still hangs around today. It is not unusual to hear opposition supporters sing “you killed your own fans” and “always the victim, it’s never your fault” at Liverpool matches. Football’s tribalism means that this will probably never go away, despite all the evidence presented to the inquests. Unfortunately, the ease with which the public accepted that the supporters were the cause of the disaster deflected from the real issues that football, and society, needed to address.
The details are simple. The matchday commander panicked as the crowd built up outside and ordered the exterior gates to be opened. A large amount of supporters entered the stadium at the same time and many of them went down the single visible entrance to the terraces, a narrow tunnel. This tunnel led to two pens, which were already perilously overcrowded, something that had not been noticed in the police control box. Only one ambulance made the pitch; 43 more were held outside and consequently did not offer any assistance to the dying and injured.
Instead of focusing on why the emergency services failed so catastrophically, the discourse was about the behaviour of supporters. The lengths the police went to in their attempts to smear fans almost defies belief: they tested a 10-year-old victim’s blood for alcohol in their determination to place drunkenness as one of the major causes.
Those fans who went into the Leppings Lane that day expected that the police would be organized, that they would protect people who wanted to be entertained by a football game, that they would have contingency plans if some unusual and dangerous situation occurred and that they would take responsibility for any failure to fulfill their obligations. They did none of this. It is not as if what happened on that terrace was completely unexpected. At another Hillsborough semifinal between Tottenham Hotspur and Wolverhampton Wanderers eight years earlier, a number of Spurs fans were injured in an awful crush at the same end. There were no fatalities and the warning was ignored.
This has wider implications than just football. There was no thorough review of police and ambulance services’ actions to determine what happened and to ensure that the situation would not be repeated. The only good that can result from tragedies is when lessons are learned and procedures are put in place to make sure there is no repeat of fatal mistakes. The errors of Hillsborough could be applied to any large gathering of people. They never were. The wider public safety issues were ignored.
Even the standard cliché that at least Hillsborough ushered in safer, all-seater stadiums is based on a false premise. Standing never killed anyone: a dangerous stadium without a safety certificate and inept policing caused the deaths. Standing in seated areas, which supporters routinely do at every Premier League game every week, is more dangerous than the old terraces. Safe standing, as used in Germany, is the only way to protect people who want to stand at matches.
The verdict vindicated the families who have fought for justice for so long. They have been mocked, sneered at and dismissed as conspiracy theorists — all for wanting to expose the truth about the deaths of their loved ones. Their bravery against overwhelming odds is inspiring.
The dead are the tip of a grotesque iceberg, though. Dozens of people suffered life-changing injuries. Andrew Devine was 22 at Hillsborough. He was deprived of oxygen and remains in a wheelchair, unable to speak. His name is not on the memorials but his life was destroyed on Leppings Lane.
There are other victims, too. The suicide rates among survivors are high. People are still being treated for post-traumatic stress syndrome and there are many more who are not but should probably seek out help. The nightmares will never go away. Those of us who saw the carnage can never forget. Or forgive.
More importantly, we need to make sure nothing like this disaster happens again, not at a football match, not at any other public event. For too long Hillsborough was a byword for secrecy and smears. After 27 years, this verdict opens up the path to truth and transparency.