Disaster that changed our lives

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Andrew Ward puts Hillsborough into context six years after the tragedy

The sixth annual Hillsborough Disaster Memorial Service took place on the Anfield Kop on Saturday, attended by hundreds of relatives of the 96 victims, all the current Liverpool players, many past players and over 3,000 fans.

This year's anniversary affected me deeply, even though I didn't attend the service. I wasn't at Hillsborough on 15 April, 1989, and I suffered no loss. My main concern stems from hearing personal accounts of "Hillsborough" while working on a book about the day of the disaster.

Besides the shocking descriptions by interviewees at the epicentre of the crush, and the harrowing stories of those searching afterwards for loved ones, it is the paradoxical images of our society that continue to haunt me. Shortly after 3pm on 15 April 1989, while television pictures of the disaster were being relayed around the world, a charge nurse at a local hospital, relaxing on his coffee break, heard only a garbled message suggesting a road accident at the main junction in Hillsborough.

Consider two other scenes of that day: a police officer, conditioned to dealing with "hooligans", finds it difficult to revert to his traditional role of helping the public when faced with a man screaming to be rescued; and parents, responsible for decisions affecting their child's welfare at the start of the day, are now told that their child's dead body is the coroner's property.

Another image that disturbs me is that of a line of police stretched across the Hillsborough half-way line to keep fans apart, even though Liverpool fans were still in trouble at the Leppings Lane end. Some of those officers knew it was a pointless stance; not only were they needed elsewhere but the police could never expect to hold back 20,000 fans. But orders are orders, and they were only doing their job. Fifty years after the liberation of prisoner of war camps, six years after Hillsborough, we are left with an important question: How can we refuse to obey orders?

The disaster came at a time when football hooliganism was high on the political agenda and the Football Spectator Bill was poised to become law. Many of the South Yorkshire police involved at Hillsborough had also been involved in the confrontations in the 1984/85 coal miners' strike. One bereaved Hillsborough father said: "We had a police operation which was totally geared to running a police state, locking them up like animals behind fences."

It is important not to remember Hillsborough simply as a football disaster. Between 1987 and 1989 an unprecedented series of disasters shocked British people: Zeebrugge, Hungerford, King's Cross, Piper Alpha, Clapham, Lockerbie, Kegworth, Purley and the Marchioness. In time we should see Hillsborough more for what it said about society in the late 1980s than as a message about football.

We should also remember the effect the disaster has had on society, not only how it has changed the landscape of football, but how it has affected so many people's lives. I remember a psychologist's prediction shortly after the disaster - that it could affect our national psyche more than any other peace-time incident.

The rationale for this prediction was that so many were there (over 50,000), so many others knew people who were there, so many could identify with being at a football match and, most strikingly, it was all on camera.

Personal experiences of a disaster are so different. One thing that helps people come to terms with trauma and change is acquiring a sense of coherence about their story of the tragedy, but the media often restricts us to soundbites, quotes and generalisations. Coverage of Hillsborough was immense, but some times confusing and conflicting.

While many of the safety lessons of Hillsborough are being heeded, the disaster still offers us some wider lessons: how certain systems do not prove very helpful for handling some of the chaos of modern society; the power of television; the danger of labelling people in a way that denies them their individual experiences: and the dangers of placing too much responsibility for healing on a painfully slow, confrontational legal system.

Andrew Ward is co-author of The Day of the Hillsborough Disaster: A Narrative Account (Liverpool University Press, £8.95). All royalties to charities designated by the Hillsborough Families Support Group.