Bitter finale for Hillsborough families who battled for a decade

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IT IS NOW nearly a decade since that Saturday afternoon in April when Hillsborough in Sheffield became forever associated with death and mayhem, when 95 people went to a football match and never returned home. The intervening years have turned their relatives into resolute fighters, determined to establish what happened at the Sheffield Wednesday stadium in 1989, to learn exactly why their sons, daughters and brothers died, and who was to blame.

Now, after a police investigation, a government inquiry, an inquest, a High Court challenge, a documentary drama and, most recently, a review of evidence that led to the decision by the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, yesterday to rule out a fresh public inquiry, bereaved families are still waiting for answers.

The disaster, witnessed live on television by many relatives, took place before the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. In an effort to relieve a crush outside the ground, police ordered a large gate to be opened, allowing hundreds of fans to pour into the overcrowded pens at the Leppings Lane end. Scores of people died as they were forced against fencing.

The government inquiry chaired by Lord Justice Taylor laid the blame squarely on South Yorkshire police, who he said had failed to plan for the arrival of large numbers of fans. But to the fury of the families, senior police officers refused to admit at the inquiry any responsibility. Rumours that Liverpool fans caused the crush by arriving at the ground late, drunk and ticketless, compounded the grief of relatives.

It was to the inquest, held in 1991, that they looked to establish the exact cause of victims' deaths. But the South Yorkshire coroner, Dr Stefan Popper, refused to take evidence relating to events later than a cut-off point of 3.15pm on the day. The jury returned a verdict of accidental death. Two years later, families of six of the victims applied for judicial review, asking the High Court to quash the verdict and order a new inquest that could lead to a verdict of unlawful killing. The court refused.

In 1ate 1996, Hillsborough returned to the forefront of public consciousness by a television drama documentary written by Jimmy McGovern. New evidence uncovered by the programme suggested police must have known the severity of overcrowding when they opened the gate. A closed-circuit camera was said to have been working, contrary to evidence at the inquest. It was the discovery of the police video, and new medical evidence turned up by the programme, that led Mr Straw to order a review last summer to establish whether a fresh inquiry was warranted.

For relatives, his decision yesterday represents yet another slap in the face from officialdom, and means that their grieving is far from over.