Justice for the 96

September 12, 2012 in Premier League

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“Throughout the compilation stage, the club has worked closely with the panel and the other donating organisations to ensure that, in line with the ethos of maximum disclosure, we have been totally transparent. The club would like to offer our sincere condolences and an apology to all the families who have suffered as a consequence of the tragic events of 15 April 1989.”
Apology on Sheffield Wednesday website, posted 12th September 2012.

This was the first step towards closure in a long battle. For some, the actions taken by authorities and the press both during and in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster will never be forgiven. It certainly won’t be forgotten. But after 23 years of struggle, members of the victims’ families have finally been given the truth of what happened during that fateful FA cup semi-final.

Following road works on the main routes into the Sheffield Wednesday ground, many Liverpool supporters arrived at the ground late. As the Leppings Lane end stand began to fill, crowds outside eager to get in for the start of the match created a crush at the small turnstiles. To alleviate this pressure, police ordered Gate C to be opened, allowing fans a route into the ground. However, Gate C opened into pens 3 and 4, which were already filled with fans. The pens, which were later deemed to only have a maximum capacity of 1,600, were already filled with 2,200 people, which was the official crowd capacity at the time for that section. Another 2,000 people were shown in.  The old style metal barricades used to keep fans in the stands caused a trap, as people were literally crushed to death. People began to climb over the fences and some were helped by the fans above who could see the madness happening underneath them. Some managed to get onto the pitch following a collapse in one of the gates, with some of them yelling at Liverpool goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar “They’re killing us Bruce, they’re killing us!”. Just six minutes in the game was stopped. 95 people died that day, with one Tony Bland left in a coma, who died four years later in 1993.

The interim report from Chief Justice Taylor that resulted said that the disaster was a result of a failure in crowd control by South Yorkshire Police. However, despite the report, the 1991 inquest ruled that the 96 had been accidental deaths, and failed to bring criminal charges to any individual or organisation, essentially accusing Liverpool fans for inflicting the deaths onto each other.

The press largely backed this assumption. The Sun had on its front page on the Wednesday following the attack: “The Truth; some fans picked pockets of victims; some fans urinated on brave cops; some fans beat up PC giving kiss of life”, the Daily Star ran the headline “Dead Fans Robbed By Drunk Thugs”, their facts seemingly backed up by the police who were keen to report that the crushing had begun outside of the ground and continued all the way inside. The police also, on enquiry, would ask victims families if their relative had a tendency to be drunk when watching football matches. Desi Fox, who lost his 21-year-old son Steve, remembers “being interviewed by the police at home some days after the disaster. The detectives were asking me if Steve or his mates drunk very much that day. I threw them out the house”.

The result was that the Hillsborough disaster was brushed under the carpet as just another footballing disaster caused by troublesome English fans, the same fans in fact that had caused all English clubs to be banned from European competition four years earlier following the Heysel disaster. This happened when both Liverpool and Juventus fans, following fights, were crushed to death in the 1985 European Cup Final and caused the death of 39 people. Jacques Georges, President of UEFA, said of Liverpool fans that “One had the impression that they were beasts waiting to charge into the arena.”

However, rightly so, victims’ families have never been able to let go and today their hard work has finally paid off. Cabinet papers are generally not released to the public until 30 years after they are written; however, following the signatures of 140,000 people on an e-petition, set up by Liverpool fan Brian Irvine, a debate was triggered in the House of Commons and it was decided that the papers would now be released. 400,000 pages of documents from over 80 sources have now been released to the public, and it is hoped that they will lay rest to the 96 that died that day.

So what does the report show? Much of what has been disputed by the families has been upheld. The report finds 164 statements were “significantly amended” and 116 “removed negative comments” about policing operation. It also found that police and emergency services made “strenuous attempts” to deflect the blame for the disaster on to innocent fans. This has led to a public apology from Kelvin Mackenzie, who as editor of The Sun, was responsible for the infamous “The Truth” headline. David Compton, chief constable of South Yorkshire Police, has also offered “profound apologies” to both the families of the 96 Hillsborough victims and Liverpool fans in general.

Perhaps even more shockingly, the report has shown that around half the lives lost on that day could have been saved. One of the major bones of contention from the first inquest was that it concluded all the victims were dead or brain dead 15 minutes after the game had kicked off at 15:00. Dr Bill Kirkup, panel member and associate chief medical officer in the Department of Health, said that if the emergency response had been swifter, almost half the victims could have had some chance of survival. “In total, 41 people therefore had potential to survive after the period of 3:15.” He continues “What I can’t say is how many of those could have been saved. But I can say is that the potential is of that order of magnitude.”

Prime Minister David Cameron, following the release of the findings, also issued an apology. This time for the the double injustice, which was both in the “failure of the state to protect their loved ones and the indefensible wait to get to the truth”, and in the efforts to denigrate the deceased and suggest that they were “somehow at fault for their own deaths”. He said details of the report were “deeply distressing” and said it showed the Liverpool fans “were not the cause of the disaster”.

Although these findings can only go some way to healing the wounds that have remained open for 23 years, it is hoped now that the healing process for the families of the 96 can begin.

Kenny Dalglish, the Liverpool manager at the time, said that “the families just want someone to say: look, it was our fault and we should have done better.” Hopefully now they have found that.

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