Hillsborough: Answers at last for Liverpool families

23 years after Hillsborough, a new report could finally bring closure for the bereaved. Jonathan Brown reports

They are the questions the families of the dead, the survivors and their supporters believe remain unanswered despite the passage of 23 years since Britain's worst sporting disaster. How could 96 people set out to a football match one spring Saturday and end up being crushed in conditions of unimaginable horror – a tragedy that unfolded live on television? Were the circumstances of their deaths and the failure to save them covered up by the authorities? Why has no one been held responsible? Why were the memories of the victims so grossly tarnished?

For the people of Liverpool, what happened at Hillsborough football stadium in Sheffield on 15 April 1989 remains an open wound. Next Wednesday, following a tireless campaign that has seen ordinary families take on some of the most powerful interests in the country, answers might finally start to emerge. They could make uncomfortable reading for the authorities. After two years spent sifting through hundreds of thousands of pages of documents submitted by some 80 authorities associated with the tragedy – from South Yorkshire Police to the Football Association and 10 Downing Street itself – a panel under the leadership of the Right Rev James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool, will hand over a 300-page report to the families who lost loved ones.

Contained within its pages will be the "maximum public disclosure" of information surrounding the disaster and its disputed aftermath. Speculation is already mounting that the details could lead to the reopening of inquests which returned controversial accidental death verdicts two decades ago. Meanwhile, the Mayor of Liverpool has called for an apology from the Prime Minister for the failures which led to the crush and the subsequent official "smearing" of Liverpool fans.

Sitting in the office above the Hillsborough Justice Campaign shop opposite Anfield's Paisley Gates, Steve Kelly's eyes fill with tears as he talks about the crush which killed his brother, Michael, and the terrible effect it had on his family.

The 59-year-old former council worker is chairman of one of three support groups to emerge from the disaster. But he has never had the strength to read the slim "body file" presented to him by the authorities detailing his brother's injuries. It is too painful.

A meeting with the nine-strong panel last month has reassured him that the truth – or at least a version acceptable to the families – will emerge next week.

"We want to exonerate the 96. We want it put down where the blame lies. There has never been a clear message to the country. They still think they were drunk, stealing from the bodies of the dead and urinating on police. It was the stereotypical view of a Scouser and a stereotypical view of a football fan in 1989," he says. "No one wants anyone's head on a spike. But I want to see people named," he adds. "If they had admitted mistakes then – they are only human and we would have forgiven." For Mr Kelly and many others Lord Justice Taylor's 1990 report into the tragedy did not go far enough, although it rejected police claims the crush was caused by aggressive, drunken fans and blamed a loss of police control instead.

The mechanics of the crush are not disputed. There was a build-up of Liverpool fans outside the ground before their team's FA Cup Semi Final against Nottingham Forest as they struggled to make their way through ageing turnstiles. That resulted in the order to open a new gate into the Leppings Lane end. The sudden influx of 2,000 people into the central pens saw the crowd swell to double the official capacity. Fences designed to stop hooliganism prevented escape, resulting in pressure building up at the front of the crowd. Soon, 96 were dead and 730 injured. That much is clear.

Kenny Derbyshire, 46, never made it into the ground. Stuck in a tunnel which led into the Liverpool end, he recalls being lifted off his feet by the weight of the crowd until the barriers collapsed at the front of the ground sending fans sprawling forward. That day has left an indelible memory.

"It has taken my life away," explains the mild-mannered driver. "It is the first thing on my mind in the morning and the last think about when I go to bed," he says. "It is running through my head like a video tape: people screaming for help that never arrives."

Joe Anderson, the newly elected Labour Mayor of Liverpool, believes emotional closure can be achieved once the full facts are known and compares the forthcoming publication of documents to the Saville Inquiry into the Bloody Sunday shootings.

He considers the decision to limit the scope of the inquest to events leading up to 3.15pm on the day when it was claimed all victims were dead was a "deliberate attempt to hide the truth".He adds: "It was a tragedy of enormous proportions and negligence on a scale that is difficult to quantify or understand. The authorities locally and nationally colluded to deny the people the right to have the truth aired."

The aftermath: Unanswered questions

* Why was the match staged at Hillsborough, the scene of previous crushes, when it did not have a safety certificate?

* Why were Liverpool fans given the smaller end of the stadium, with fewer turnstiles, despite substantially outnumbering Nottingham Forest supporters?

* Why was the police presence reduced by 10 per cent compared with the previous year's match at the same venue between the clubs?

* Why was evidence given by police officers on the day omitted from the subsequent inquiries?

* Why was the kick-off not delayed to allow the fans safe passage?

* At the inquests, why were all the fans who were killed assumed to have been dead by 3.15pm?

* Why did only one ambulance reach the dying fans on the pitch?

* Why did only 14 of the dead reach hospital?

* What happened to CCTV cameras and tapes that disappeared from the police control room and the ground?

* Who authorised the smearing of Liverpool fans? What did 10 Downing Street know?

Timeline: Search for truth

15 April 1989: A crush at the start of the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool Football Club and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield results in the deaths of 96 football fans.

19 April 1989: The Sun publishes front-page story headlined "The Truth", claiming that drunk, ticketless Liverpool fans caused the disaster. It led to a boycott of the newspaper on Merseyside.

January 1990: The Taylor report blames the deaths on police losing control and recommends all-seater stadiums and the removal of anti-hooligan fences. Lord Taylor rejects claims that fans were drunk.

September 1990: The Director of Public Prosecutions concludes there is insufficient evidence to justify proceedings against police or others.

November 1990: The inquests resume. A coroner returns verdicts of accidental death in all cases, but none of the evidence heard is from after 3.15pm on the day of the disaster. Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, who was the police commander on the day of the match, retires from the South Yorkshire force on health grounds. Disciplinary action against him is subsequently dropped.

November 1993: A judicial review into the inquests backs the coroner's handling of the case.

December 1996: Jimmy McGovern's TV film about the disaster highlights new evidence.

February 1998: Lord Justice Stuart Smith's "scrutiny" of the incident is published. He says there is no new evidence to warrant fresh inquests.

July 2000: Private manslaughter prosecutions begin against two senior South Yorkshire Police commanders. The jury is unable to reach a verdict on Chief Superintendent Duckenfield and acquits his deputy, Bernard Murray.

March 2009: The European Court of Human Rights rejects a challenge by a bereaved parent, Anne Williams, over the official version of her 15-year-old son's death. She claims that the teenager was still alive after 3.15pm, but the court says her challenge is too late to be considered.

February 2010: The Hillsborough Independent Panel begins examining papers related to the case.

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