Sunday 25 February 2018

As one who saw the horrors that day, I hope families can now get some peace

Fans lie on advertising boards which were used as makeshift stretchers. Photo credit: PA/PA Wire
Fans lie on advertising boards which were used as makeshift stretchers. Photo credit: PA/PA Wire
James Lawton

James Lawton

You didn't have to lose a loved one on that hellish spring day 28 years ago when Hillsborough football ground became a killing field to have it as an ache, of the bones and the spirit. It was only necessary to be there and carry down all the days that followed the fear there would never be proper atonement.

Proper atonement? But then maybe it is too lofty, too Biblical a phrase and cannot begin to embrace all the emotions of those family members who punched the air in celebration yesterday when they heard that six senior figures now face prosecution.

The jubilation, it certainly seemed to someone who happened to walk among the dead and the dying, who saw the desperate, untutored attempts to preserve life, who felt all that hopeless, seeping despair, had little or nothing to do with any still raw desire for revenge. No, it was deeper running, more profound than that. It was joy, still deeply anguished no doubt, but joy nonetheless, that those 96 lives lost in 1989, would now at least have had restored a dignity that was so casually, carelessly taken away.

No guarantees come with the intention to prosecute the match commander for the manslaughter of 95 of the 96 victims through gross negligence, and for charges against others of being involved in an allegedly huge and elaborate official cover-up, but this will be another day's legal work.

For the families who have spent so long fighting to place what happened on that day of catastrophe and horror in a true light there is already one priceless reward. It is the knowledge now that every accusation of official misadventure and mischief and deceit will come under forensic examination.

Every life lost will be weighed with a care so singularly lacking on that day of makeshift stretchers fashioned from advertising hoardings, of gymnasium turned mortuary, with Polaroid pictures stuck on the wall, and the trawling of hospitals by desperate relatives of the missing.

There are so many unshakeable memories carried from that day and its aftermath. First, there was the gathering sense of panic at the Leppings Lane entrance to the ground, the weird juxtaposition of a mounted policeman losing control in the middle of a pack of fans pushed from behind towards locked iron gates and just a few yards away a group of officers standing undirected.

In that moment there was a terrible sense of a slippage of control and then the gates were swung open and the fans poured into the ground as though caught in the tide and the dying began.

For so long, all that followed seemed like a nightmare that would never be assuaged by a breath of accountability. Walking down on the field after the play was stopped was a few strides into a terrible helplessness. A young man, left almost naked by the crush, was being given mouth to mouth resuscitation. Plainly, it was to no avail. There was no shortage of would-be rescuers, but they were not in uniform and had no training and by now much of the dying was done.

One of them lingers in the memory with particular strength. He was pale and wiry and had a torn shirt and there was a wildness in his eyes which was still present some hours later when he harangued a knot of journalists. "You must tell the truth about what happened today," he yelled. "Someone must tell the truth. Anyone who doesn't, should spend the rest of their lives ashamed of themselves."

But then it wasn't so easy. Repelled by the reporting of 'The Sun' under the banner, The Truth, you reported all that you had seen. It did not include drunken Liverpool fans attacking police and first aid workers - or frisking the pockets of the dead. It was a picture of desperate men and women attempting to help in a situation for which they had no training.

So what could you do? You could give evidence in a private prosecution of senior police officers at a court in Leeds, you could report to a West Midlands Police enquiry into the conduct of the South Yorkshire force. And then you could watch, dismayed as an inquest decided there was no case for the establishment to answer - a verdict that stood until last spring. And in the meantime, you could hear from a series of home secretaries that there was no reason to reopen an inquiry into how it was 96 innocent lives were lost on an afternoon of spring sunshine.

The prime minister Margaret Thatcher came to the ground the morning after the disaster. She offered the bromide of sympathy but there was no whip-crack of an order to probe the extent of the failure of public safety.

In one way, yesterday was, like the inquest verdict of unlawful killing last year, the throwing of some light on a remnant of the past. It was saying that the relatives of the Hillsborough 96 had indeed been fighting for something more than some closure on the most painful of their grief.

They had been saying that they would never rest without some proper appraisal of a day that had not only destroyed much of their lives but made them question the decency of the society in which they lived.

For anyone who just happened to be at Hillsborough that day, who didn't have to identify a lost son or daughter but simply witnessed the needless passing of so many lives, that was a feeling easily shared with the grieving.

For such pain, there is maybe no such thing as closure. But there might be an easing of the ache, a sense that the lost lives have not only been served in memory but in what they meant before they were taken away.

The terrible day at Hillsborough was never going to be redeemed. But then it is surely something that some of the rage may, finally, be stilled.

Irish Independent

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