Hillsborough: The policeman's story

He was an honest PC just trying to do his job. But the stadium disaster and its aftermath have brought about the disintegration of Martin McLoughlin's career and spirit. His account, told for the first time to Ian Herbert, will challenge our perception of that day and show that not all of the victims were fans.

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It was a clear, bright  April morning and the larks were out in the valley of the River Don. Constable 1412 Martin ‘Mac’ McLoughlin left his house with a football match to police; it really held no fears. He was at the top of his game, fast establishing a reputation as a ‘thief catcher’, as bobbies like to call the best of their own, and perhaps had his two years on reconnaissance in Northern Ireland – finding and clearing improvised explosive devices – to thank for that.

The very small house McLoughlin now occupies on an unlovely estate near the M1 on Rotherham’s outskirts is testament to how that April day would finish him as a copper and mean there would be no comfortable retirement with roses around the door. But the house is big enough for him to store the handwritten maps he sketched, in pencil, of Crossmaglen, County Armagh, when he was deployed by the 9 Parachute Squadron of the Royal Engineers in 1981, to sniff out the bombs. In the same metal box is a book about the legendary Battle of Orgreave, entitled The English Civil War, Part II with photographic plates including a helmeted McLoughlin, carrying his police short shield, on the front line against South Yorkshire’s pitmen in the white heat of the 1984 miners’ strike. ‘Mac’ was always a good man in a crisis.

All of which is why the warning signs that 96 people would be crushed to death on that bright afternoon, 23 years ago, were not on the 31-year-old’s mind as he set off at 7.30am to police the Hillsborough FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. The crush had been so bad when he policed Sheffield Wednesday’s match with Manchester United, only 63 days earlier, that he was picked up and carried 150 yards on the swell, unable to touch the ground with his feet. And everyone at Hackenthorpe nick still talked about the team’s match with Newcastle United in August 1980, when a WPC’s knickers were pulled down in a frightening crush. “We laughed about that,” McLoughlin says now. “Different days.”

The laughs in his life stopped about six hours after McLoughlin arrived at Hillsborough, on 15 April 1989, and when the threat of disaster at the stadium gave way to the reality of mass asphyxiation; fans screaming for help in terrace pens three and four, as they died.

McLoughlin was in his position by 8.30am that day, part of the 10-man Serial 4 under Sgt 266 Dave Jacques – who was the only one of them with a radio. At 9am, he exchanged some banter with the instantly recognisable football manager Lawrie McMenemy, a big name in football, as he strolled by at the corner of the lane which was about to become synonymous with death. By 12.30pm, the young officer was taking his seat with 200 others in Hillsborough’s South Stand for a pre-match briefing which match-day commander David Duckenfield addressed – garrulously as McLoughlin recalls. “We’ve catered for every eventuality,” Duckenfield told them. Eyes rolled. “The gaffer liked the sound  of his own voice,” McLoughlin remembers.

The disaster which immediately unfolded – to be followed by the 23 years of cover-up and deceit from those whose incompetence was to blame, until the vast Hillsborough Independent Panel report blew the whole scandal wide open in September – is defined for most of us by the images of those frantic supporters, desperately seeking to claw their way up and out of the terrace pens. People died beneath and around them as they struggled to live and to save others; we can only imagine what they experienced. But McLoughlin’s Hillsborough story is one of many – from those who were caught up in it, and those trying to tell the truth about it, to those whose lives have never been quite the same.

Small visual fragments  remain for him now. Like crowding around Sgt Jacques’ radio at 2.30pm, straining to hear the escalating panic from officers outside the Leppings Lane terrace, where the crush in front of the blue, concertina Exit Gate C was accelerating out of control. Pleading with a traffic warden to hand over his radio and being refused. Hearing an officer’s scream issue from Jacques’ radio: “For fuck’s sake open the gate. If you don’t open those gates, people are going to die”. And then – after police had swung the gate open and fans funnelled through it and down a tunnel marked ‘2’ into the jaws of hell – there was a number. “We heard the 10/99,” says McLoughlin. “That was when the hairs on the back of my neck went up. You go through a career and a lifetime without hearing that.” 10/99: universal police code for a disaster of national proportions.

Faster and faster came the blur of events. McLoughlin racing down between the invalid carriages beside the pitch to get to the front of the perimeter fence behind which supporters were dying. Eye contact with the Liverpool goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar, whose attempts to engender calm impressed the ex-Army man. The muffled sound of Forest fans cheering and jeering because, from their distance, this looked like a Liverpool pitch invasion. Being hauled back, on a senior officer’s orders, to  organise the flow of ambulances. And then, at  5.30pm, in the vast, empty aftermath, sitting desolately with other officers, in the silence of the stand overlooking Leppings Lane, for the debrief.

It was 6.30pm, at Sheffield’s Claywheels Lane depot, when McLoughlin asked an inspector what to record in his PC’s blue, lined pocket notebook and was told: “Don’t bother. It will all go down in the disaster log”. When the coast was clear, Sgt Jacques, a proper, old-style Sheffield copper told McLoughlin: “Fuck him. You’re putting everything in there. You even put down what time you went for a piss.”

So everything he saw did go down, in the pocket book and in a subsequent statement – typed out, one-fingered, in true bobby fashion. The good nature of the Liverpool  fans, the damnable lack of radios in the middle of this Armageddon, the lack of officers, the cold inhumanity of ordering bobbies to  sit down in a place overlooking the Leppings Lane terrace for that debrief.

It was on Wednesday 12 September of this year that The Independent revealed on its front page the neat crossings and the diagonal line struck through his  statement, part of a systematic doctoring of statements which the Hillsborough Independent Panel revealed in its entirety, the following day. The truth McLoughlin had told, the criticisms he had made, had been edited out of history.

Doctoring statements – or “review and alteration” as senior officers called it – was only one small part of the cover-up. The vast Hillsborough Independent Panel report has revealed so much about the same malign process, and the pace of the story has been so frantic since, that there has not even been time to stop and examine the small details. That the truth has emerged at all is testament to the work of the Report’s principal author, Queens University Professor of Criminology Phil Scraton, who has been digging away at the subject for years. It was McLoughlin’s colleague PC 2167 David Frost – “good lad, going places…” – who discovered his entire 16-page statement had been tampered with and set Scraton off in search of the broader conspiracy.

Delve into the Panel report and you see the motives for such deceit and how this cover-up was known about by senior officers, like  Norman Bettison, an officer whose rapid moves through the ranks McLoughlin had clocked in a town where everyone knew everyone. “He went to a better school than us and was always going places. Not bad for a lad from the Rotherham Road,” McLoughlin says of Bettison, who rose to be West Yorkshire Police chief constable and is now the subject of Independent Police Complaints Commission investigation. He resigned last month.

An HIP document reveals Bettison doing all the talking at a slick presentation to Conservative MP Michael Shersby, as part of the push to get the force’s story articulated well at Westminster.  “Fit those paragraphs much more in context. Removal of certain items of evidence,” he says of the officers’ statements. Bettison and Shersby both went on to address MPs on how impressively the South Yorkshire force policed Hillsborough on the day the 96 died. Another HIP document reveals that the senior men had other well-educated friends to look out for them. South Yorkshire’s chief constable Peter Wright came in for some flak and Cumbria’s chief, Leslie Sharp, was asked to investigate him. “I would much rather have been able to sit with you over a pint and yarn about the past, present and future,” wrote Sharp, after clearing Wright, in another HIP document.

Everyone tried to blame everyone else for a disaster which took place at a stadium with no safety certificate, despite a known history of crushing and when the usual, experienced match commander, Chief Superintendent Brian Mole, was replaced with one with minimal experience of Hillsborough – Chief Superintendent Duckenfield. Another HIP documentf  finds solicitor Peter Metcalf, then of Hammond Suddards, pushing hard to get Sheffield Wednesday’s stewards implicated – “so then the club’s responsibility is correspondingly increased” – to deflect blame away and save the force the cost of damages.

 The South Yorkshire Ambulance Service’s miserably poor response – one of the least appreciated aspects of the disaster until the HIP report was published – saw a mere four paramedics on hand to assist. Another HIP document reveals the chief ambulance officer, Don Page, offering the remarkable explanation that there was no point sending paramedics that day “because it is difficult for them to put their extended training into practice in crowds”. 

That’s why Dr Nicholas Kearsley, a Sheffield GP, there as a fan and who stepped forward to help, found seriously injured people “lying on their backs” – another of the HIP’s extraordinary evidential disclosures. As any medical professional knows, when an unconscious person is on his back, lacking muscle tone and protective reflexes, his lower jaw is liable to flop back, obstructing breathing. Lie an individual on his back and he is far more likely to die. The ambulance officers, desperately needed and whom McLoughlin had left the stadium to help navigate, were just left waiting while death occurred. There are few more astonishing HIP documents than the  Ambulance Control Room transcripts in which a Sheffield ambulance (S102) which had been on site since at least 3.31pm, transmitted: “102 we’re still around at the First Aid and the … mortuary-cum-hospital, still not seen any officer…”

A Liverpool medic, John Ashton, there to watch his team, was astonished by the lack of leadership which paralysed emergency service staff. A Glasgow surgeon, Tim Cooke, asked a senior officer to allocate him a junior police officer “and we would go around the casualties and I would tell him who needed urgent treatment and who could be left. He did not reply and turned away to talk to someone else.”

The senior ambulance officers tried to blame the police. “The persons (sic) who were in a position to, and should have recognised the plight, are the police officers,” states another HIP document. And the senior police officers tried to blame the junior officers. No one had thought to close off tunnel 2, thus spreading the fans into other pens, when officers had undertaken that very act in the previous year’s semi-final – another touch-and-go afternoon for safety. “It was an informal initiative at junior level, not reported to command level,” Bettison shifting that hole in South Yorkshire Police’s denial of blame down the ranks.

And back out on the front line, amid the blame shifting  and manoeuvring, lives  and careers were disintegrating. Three police  officers phoned in sick at      Hackenthorpe station, the day after the disaster. “They never worked again,”  McLoughlin says. No one knows whether it was the events of that April day that led PC 1301 Colin Fell – “originally Royal Navy, a good lad,” as McLoughlin remembers him – to  take his own life eight years ago, though he  had never appeared to be the same man again after Hillsborough. “There was no note,” McLoughlin says. “Nothing.”

McLoughlin didn’t think that he’d been undergoing that same kind of disintegration. He’d already been a police ‘tutor constable’ for 10 years by then, sharing experiences with young officers at the police training college at RAF Dishworth in North Yorkshire. And the real pride he felt was for his role in establishing the South Yorkshire force’s bomb search team. After the Brighton bombing which killed five people at the 1984 Conservative Party conference, every force had to set one up. His own days in County Armagh made him the ideal man for the job.

His own 2-10pm shift at Hackenthorpe on Sunday 16 April went ahead as if nothing had happened, even though the enormity had hit him the previous evening at 9pm, when he reached his own front drive in the Rotherham suburb of Brinsworth and sank to his knees on the concrete as his then wife (ex-police) walked down it to meet him.

A domestic dispute was his first call-out that Sunday. “Husband had beat his wife up because she hadn’t ironed his trousers to go out for a pint for Sunday dinner,” McLoughlin remembers. “The madness of that.” It was three days later – sitting in his police car at a railway level crossing at 3pm on a weekday afternoon – when he found himself crying, unable to move. “There were two cars in front, one behind,” he recalls. “The station thought I was having trouble with some toe rag. I said: ‘No. Can you just send somebody out?’ I thought I was going cuckoo.”

A course of diazepam followed and six weeks off, before a return to light duties. It was when the usual notification of the twice-yearly course training officers in bomb search techniques didn’t materialise that he sensed something was wrong. “We want someone finding our bombs, not planting them!” is his recollectionf of the joke with which a senior officer told him he had been removed from that team, his hopes of sergeant examinations gone up in smoke.

The unravelling was rapid, thereafter. McLoughlin estimates that he was taking eight valium a day – “one to go into a briefing, one to go out on patrol, one to go into the nick because I couldn’t stand crowds…” – when he began sessions with the force’s charismatic stress counsellor Luigi Pieri, ex-Royal Medical Corps. He moved out to Rotherham Station in 1991. But alcohol was becoming a part of the antidote for the nightmares when a routine call-out to investigate a burglary at a terraced house in Rotherham led to the arrest, red-handed, of David Chadwick, an individual who would become known to police over years as a suspected paedophile before he was finally convicted. McLoughlin became obsessive about getting him sent down and somewhere amid locking him up four times for minor offences, he swung a punch at him, bringing an ABH charge and the end of his police career, on a medical  discharge. “By then, I knew that I would never get back to where I was in the job,” he says.

He’ll tell you that 1994 was the worst year of the decline that would follow. Over time, he was arrested for being drunk and disorderly, drink-driving and for putting a brick through an Army recruiting office window. There were spells in Rotherham General Hospital’s psychiatric unit, on alcohol detox and being treated for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But he had no lower place to go than the day in March 2004 when, after an eviction notice and a drinking spree, he slipped into the Rotherham psychiatric unit with a hoax bomb device and threatened to blow the place up.

“He wanted to die but didn’t want his children to face the stigma of his suicide, so he hoped that the police would shoot him dead,” prosecutor Sarah Wright told the Sheffield Crown Court case that followed. It is one of the miserable ironies of his mental disintegration that the very bomb squad he helped to create carried out a controlled explosion. The ‘bomb’ was found to be an empty metal tin and the ‘explosives’ strapped to the front were filled with sawdust.

The subsequent months on remand at Doncaster prison actually seemed to succeed where medical treatment had failed. A few lads from his Army days were inside there and he even admitted that he was ex-police, which you don’t do in prison – before a judge hearing his case, at Sheffield Crown Court, sentenced him to two years’ probation. Was Hillsborough the cause of  this? It is perfectly likely, says John Ashton, that Liverpool medic who also helped out at Hillsborough and who, as Cumbria’s public health director now, undertook work examining the psychological effects on those caught up in the shooting spree by taxi driver Derrick Bird in the county, in June 2010. “The key people at risk are the first responders and bystanders,” says Ashton, who chaired a recovery group for a year after.

South Yorkshire police didn’t see it that way. “They said I was suffering from PTSD because of my time with the Army in Ireland,” McLoughlin says. “The Army wasn’t standing for that. They said ‘no’ – that I’d had three years with them and 15 years with the police.” Still the old same blame-shifting, but McLoughlin has rebuilt his life nevertheless. He works as a driver and a funeral director now and having married his second wife Ruth, in 1998, has five children. It’s that habit Hillsborough always had of creeping up on him which is so unsettling. McLoughlin only discovered that his statements were altered when a friend saw the newspaper report and showed him a copy on the internet. That has angered him and brought back all of those old feelings of unease about the day which started with sunshine, laughter and larks. “I don’t want the people of Liverpool, the families of the poor people who died, to think all South Yorkshire coppers are bad,” he says. “We tried our best but we failed.”