Hillsborough: They walked alone - The long fight for justice

The families of Hillsborough fought their battle for the truth in the face of establishment indifference. But now, even as they are vindicated, they have to cope with learning that many could have survived that day
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You'll never walk alone.

That's what Liverpool fans sang at yesterday's match against Sunderland, as they do at every game. But for 23 years, families of the victims and survivors of Hillsborough did just that. As a close band of men and women, supported by legal teams, some MPs and academics, they campaigned, shouted, cried, fought and walked together. But in the wider public, they walked alone.

Two judge-led inquiries, an inquest, police investigations and a private prosecution were carried out, but the families' story was largely dismissed by the establishment. Now they are vindicated, but there is fresh agony: discovering whether their loved ones were among the 41 that the Hillsborough Independent Panel concluded could have survived, but for the failings of the police and ambulance service. Many of the details of the report have been known by the families for years, including the police cover-up, but the scale of the tally of "the 41" – a new figure that surely will go alongside "the 96" – came as the biggest shock.

Speaking from her home in Aigburth, Liverpool, yesterday, Hilda Hammond said she and her husband Phil, a former chairman of the families' support group, have always known that their 14-year-old son Philip, one of the youngest victims, would have lived. They are sure he is one of the 41. Dr Ed Walker, who attended the Northern General Hospital on the day, said in a witness statement to police that Philip was still alive when he was admitted.

Mrs Hammond, 63, said: "We always thought he could have survived. He was taken to hospital well after 3.15pm and he was still alive. We have always known that. It's the poor people who didn't know; it is going to be really traumatic for them."

Her husband nearly died from a brain haemorrhage in 2008, spending a year in hospital, and was forced to step back from leading the campaign. But the couple were in Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral to hear the panel, led by Bishop James Jones, announce their report. "I am so glad that Phil has survived to see this," Mrs Hammond said. "I am so proud of him."

The hundreds of thousands of documents published by the panel reveal that the authorities were presented with expert opinion that many of the fans lived beyond the notorious 3.15pm cut-off – and in fact could have been revived – more than 20 years ago.

Consultant forensic pathologist Dr Iain West reviewed eight of the original post-mortem examinations in 1992, and found that at least three of the victims, including Philip Hammond, could have been saved.

In the case of 15-year-old Kevin Williams, Dr West argued: "Although he has suffered injuries to the neck these are by no means invariably fatal. He could well have survived for a considerable period, well beyond 3.15 pm."

Dr West also stated that there was nothing to indicate that Michael Kelly had died by 3.15pm. "Indeed the evidence available to me suggests otherwise."

John Glover learned last week that his 20-year-old son Ian was one of the 41 who could have survived. Mr Glover, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer last October and had not been expected to survive beyond Christmas, said: "He got out of those terrible crushes and was left to die. A little medical attention would have kept him alive. All those ambulances were lined up outside but didn't even get on to the park. That makes me feel terrible, that they could have been there for Ian, but they weren't. These people take a job on to save lives, but they just sat outside in vans, and nothing was done. There are so many faults with Hillsborough. I could go on and on."

When they heard the panel's findings in Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral last Wednesday, the families were braced for the full details of the truth, but to some it was even worse than they imagined. One who has worked with the group in the past few days said the families had "no idea of the force of the content".

Some of the documents had always been available, either in the public domain or in the House of Commons library – in particular, the altered police statements – and there had been a powerful Jimmy McGovern documentary in 1996, and a book, Hillsborough: The Truth, by Professor Phil Scraton, in 1999 with a new edition in 2009. But the difference this time was that the panel report had the backing of the Government, and when it was acknowledged by David Cameron in the House of Commons last Wednesday, it was the moment that the families realised they were no longer alone.

Professor John Ashton, a doctor of public health who was in the upper stand of the Leppings Lane end with his sons and nephew, treated the survivors and issued six or seven of the dead with "death certificates", noting the time of death in an exercise book with his signature. When he tried to criticise the emergency operation during evidence to the initial Taylor inquiry, he found his professional integrity under attack. Professor Ashton said yesterday that the panel report has exposed a "corruption of public life". He added: "The Thatcher government hated Liverpool. Her ministers talked about 'managed decline'. South Yorkshire Police were her favourite police force – they had fought the miners five years earlier. All these factors exacerbated the tragedy. The corruption set in."

Mrs Hammond said it was certain that Margaret Thatcher's views were coloured, but so were those of successive governments. "Until this week, I think David Cameron's views were coloured," she added. "It was so frustrating that it fell on deaf ears for so long. We felt like we were banging our heads against a brick wall all the time. What we wanted most of all was public recognition so that people would understand what happened. That is why we have gone on for 23 years. We knew most of this already, we just wanted the country to take notice.

"Now at last we've been listened to. We have had the ears of Parliament and the ears of the nation. There is more action to be taken. We cannot just sit back. People have got to be brought to account. The difference this week is that the establishment has finally accepted the truth. Now the establishment has got to do something about these people."

So the families, at the same time as struggling to deal with the new disclosures of the panel report, will continue to fight for justice. But this time they are not alone.