James Lawton: There are two memories: shock and powerlessness

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The Independent Online

There was a time when you thought it would never go away, none of it – the raw anger that was locked into the families of the victims of Hillsborough and made it impossible for them to grieve, the terrible lies and evasions and smearing of 96 innocent people, and that appalling belief there would always be a condescending message from some defender of the establishment that it was time to move on.

That was the enduring horror of Hillsborough that was so profoundly relieved yesterday when the unvarnished report of an Independent Panel was handed to the families and the Prime Minister made the unstinting apology for which they had worked for 23 years.

It wasn't closure, because that cannot happen until the guilty are arraigned, and not a single life that might have been rescued that pitiless day can be restored. But what happened yesterday, you had to believe, was something that for so long had seemed almost as unattainable.

It was, from that first morning the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, arrived at Hillsborough with an entourage of officials who – it is on the record now – had so much to defend and obscure, the first time that the real story was being told and recognised, quite unequivocally, by the holder of the highest office in the land.

The truth is that when David Cameron told the Commons that a terrible wrong had been exposed, you didn't have to be a relative to feel a great weight lift from your shoulders. You had only to understand that the fabrication that for all these years had defiled the belief that you could trust those responsible for the safety of ordinary people had come crashing down.

The celebration, or perhaps it was simply relief, of this was maybe more intense, if circumstances had taken you, as they had me, to the Leppings Lane entrance of Hillsborough roughly half an hour before the kick-off of the semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. There are two abiding memories of those moments. One is of shock. The other is of powerlessness. It was not necessary to have any professional knowledge of public safety to know that something was terribly amiss.

A mounted policeman was quite unable to relieve the pressure of a crowd building in front of the locked gates, yet a few yards away a group of police officers talked among themselves. There was a vacuum of leadership.

The details of those steps to disaster would become grimly familiar soon enough, along with the smear that the problem was created by drunken, late fans.

When the gate was unlocked, when the fans were funnelled into that end of that ground, which lacked a safety certificate, it was for 96 men and women and children no less than a death sentence, and the anger that would never leave you was rooted in the random nature of their fate.

At the other end of the ground it was another world of light and space. So you took your place in the stand and you pointed your finger at Leppings Lane and said to a colleague you worried that people might well die. Around then the Liverpool goalkeeper Bruce Grobelaar began signalling frantically to officials. He knew a nightmare was unfolding.

Then you walked down on the field among the dead and the dying, some of whom we are told might have been brought back but for a catastrophic failure by the ambulance service, and you saw the fans who would soon be briefed against by the South Yorkshire Constabulary, making their desperate attempts to save life on a day on which they had come to watch football in the sunshine.

Yesterday, when David Cameron spoke, you were taken back to those scenes of confusion and desperate pain. Also provoked was the memory of a distraught man at Hillsborough who cried, to no one in particular, "The truth about this day must be told." It took a little time, but now it has been done and the air is that much clearer – and easier to breathe.

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