Monday 24 October 2016

The tragedy of that terrible day is laid to rest - but scars remain

The Hillsborough tragedy left the city of Liverpool in shock, writes Liam Collins, who was sent to cover its aftermath

Published 01/05/2016 | 02:30

CATASTROPHE: An injured fan receiving attention on the pitch as the disaster in Hillsborough unfolded. Photo: PA
CATASTROPHE: An injured fan receiving attention on the pitch as the disaster in Hillsborough unfolded. Photo: PA

The morning after - Sunday April 16, 1989 - I stood in one of the stands at Hillsborough and looked down to the left, to the terrace where 96 Liverpool football fans had perished the previous afternoon, stunned that so many had died in such a small space at something so mundane as a football match.

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I had been to many stadiums - Croke Park, Lansdowne Road, Murrayfield, White Hart Lane. All appeared to me to be massive places (even back then), but the Sheffield Wednesday ground was just so small, and in the eerie silence it was almost impossible to imagine the carnage of less than 24 hours earlier.

But it happened, and as we now know, those who died that afternoon were unlawfully killed, according to a British Coroners jury who listened to two years' worth of evidence before giving their verdict.

I was then the 'nighttown' man on the Sunday Independent and so didn't start work on a Saturday until 7pm, when the paper was put to bed and a skeleton staff stayed on to monitor breaking news.

So that afternoon I was at home, planting a privet hedge with my neighbour Peter Stapleton when a call came through from the office to get myself out to Dublin Airport in the taxi that was on its way. In those days of more leisurely communication I had little idea of what was happening, but a major tragedy was unfolding and they wanted copy from Liverpool for the first edition of the paper.

Later I learned that the various editors of the Sunday Independent were sitting at their desks wondering what the splash (the front page lead story) would be for the upcoming Sunday edition. They didn't really have one.

Then, shortly after 3pm, a phone call came in to Campbell Spray from Eamon Dunphy, then one of the Sunday Independent's star columnists and sports writers.

"Turn on the television," he told him, "there's carnage at the FA cup match."

The room switched immediately to the live coverage of the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, which was being played that day, April 15, 1989 - and watched as fans were crushed to death, or the lucky ones were hauled to safety or climbed frantically from Pen Three at the Lepping Lane end of the Sheffield stadium and flopped onto the pitch. There were 24,200 Liverpool fans there that afternoon and only now, 27 years later, has the tragic past been laid to rest for the 82 who died in the stadium that day and the 14 who died over the following days.

At Liverpool Airport I met George Hamilton, the RTE commentator, and some of the other journalists coming from the match - I managed to talk to them on the tarmac, they knew something terrible had happened, but didn't know the extent of it.

They had been ushered from the stadium after the match was abandoned and had been travelling back through Liverpool.

Oddly enough, it was the same in Liverpool that night. The nightlife of the city continued, the pubs and clubs thronged, most people unaware of the unfolding tragedy that was about to afflict the most Irish of British cities.

Although Sky News began broadcasting the previous month, it had few subscribers. It would be another decade before the first dedicated sports channels and many years before the era of mass communication arrived. In those days it took time for bad news to travel, but when it did, Hillsborough would cast a shadow over Liverpool for more than two and a half decades.

Early the next morning I recall travelling over the lonely moors of the Peak District and finally arriving in the streets of Sheffield and Hillsborough itself. We stood with the gathering media at the stadium gates until we were ushered into the ground.

The clicking of photographers' cameras was all I remember, there was no-one to answer questions, only ugly rumours that fans who stayed in the pubs too long had crowded in after the whistle sounded and caused the crush. We know now that that is not true, but the Sun newspaper would be reviled in Liverpool for years afterwards, and maybe even by some to this day, for printing it.

I flew back a few days later to find Liverpool transformed - the gaiety of the previous Saturday had been replaced by a city in mourning. Anfield, the theatre of dreams for so many Irish supporters, was a virtual mausoleum to the fallen, almost every inch of its pitch and stands covered in a cascade of red - flowers, wreaths, scarves and jerseys.

Now, 27 years later, the story that unfolded that Saturday has been finally laid to rest, but the scars will remain for many who lived through that terrible day.

Sunday Independent

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