Tuesday 28 January 2020

How a series of fatal errors by those in charge turned a day of football into a catastrophe

Former chief superintendent of South Yorkshire Police, David Duckenfield. Photo: Reuters
Former chief superintendent of South Yorkshire Police, David Duckenfield. Photo: Reuters

Patrick Sawer

It was a bright spring day and the sun was shining as two of the country's top teams faced each other in an FA Cup semi-final at Sheffield Wednesday's Hillsborough stadium.

But in the space of a few short minutes, what should have been a great day of football had turned to carnage.

April 15, 1989, ended with 96 Liverpool fans crushed to death and hundreds of others left injured and traumatised, after a series of fatal errors by those in charge of ensuring the safety of those attending the match.

The disaster began as hundreds of Liverpool fans streamed towards the stadium and the Leppings Lane stand allocated to them.

It became clear that not everyone would reach the stands in time and a watching police constable radioed the control room to request the game be delayed to ensure the safe passage of supporters into the ground. The request was declined.

With more fans arriving than could be safely filtered through the turnstiles, a bottleneck developed and, moments before the 3pm kick-off, Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, the police commander in charge of the match, ordered exit gate C to be opened.

That decision forced even more fans into the already overcrowded central pens. As more people entered the terraces they were forced up against those in front, who in turn were pushed up against the perimeter fencing, designed to prevent pitch invasions, by the weight of the crowd behind them. Mr Duckenfield would later claim fans had forced open the exit gate to enter the ground, a lie he told the 2015 inquest into the deaths that he would regret "to his dying day".

By 2.59pm, supporters, desperate to escape the growing crush, had begun to climb out of the pens behind the goal onto the track surrounding the pitch.

The situation worsened when at 3.04pm Liverpool's Peter Beardsley struck the crossbar of the Nottingham Forest goal. As the crowd surged, one of the metal crush barriers in pen 3 gave way, sending fans tumbling over one another and into the pen's front fences.

Realising something was going very wrong, South Yorkshire Police Superintendent Roger Greenwood, the ground commander, ran onto the field to get referee Ray Lewis to stop the match.

It was 3.05pm when Mr Lewis blew the whistle and desperate fans were climbing the fence in an effort to escape the crush. Some managed to escape by forcing open a small gate, while others struggled for air above them. Other fans were pulled to safety by those in the West Stand above the Leppings Lane terrace. The intensity of the crush broke more barriers on the terraces and amid desperate scenes holes were made in the perimeter fencing by fans trying to rescue others.

At 3.10pm, the police control room requested bolt cutters but none were available. The inquest later heard those still trapped in the pens were packed so tightly that many died of compressive asphyxia while standing. By now, the scene on the pitch resembled that of a chaotic first-aid post during battle.

Police officers, stewards and members of the St John's Ambulance service appeared overwhelmed and many uninjured fans took it upon themselves to assist the injured, with several attempting CPR on the dying, while others tore down advertising hoardings with their bare hands to use as stretchers for the injured.

Some fans trying to ferry the injured to waiting ambulances were prevented from doing so by the police cordon which had been placed across the pitch and while a total of 44 ambulances arrived, officers prevented all but one from entering the stadium.

In the end, only 14 of the 96 who were fatally injured arrived at hospital.

South Yorkshire police officers would later accuse Liverpool fans of having caused the deaths themselves, claiming they were drunk, late, violent and unco-operative.

The 2016 inquest jury rejected the accusations and exonerated the fans, finding that there was no behaviour on their part which caused or contributed to the dangerous situation at the Leppings Lane turnstiles. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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