The tragedy is that Hillsborough was avoidable

Twenty years on from the Hillsborough disaster, which claimed 96 fans’ lives, Belfast academic Phil Scraton explains why the worst tragedy in British football was both foreseeable and avoidable

Considering all that has been written and broadcast about the Hillsborough disaster — plus the inquiries, inquests, civil actions, private prosecutions and campaigns — what happened on the 15 April 1989 at an FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest is not complex.

Jenni Hicks, whose daughters Sarah and Victoria both died, questions how, 'something so simple, so obvious, was turned into something so complicated'. It was also foreseeable and avoidable.

On a warm Spring day over 50,000 fans journeyed to an unfamiliar, old-fashioned ‘neutral’ stadium hired by the Football Association. Travelling by coach across the Pennines, Liverpool fans were stopped and searched by police. Arriving in Sheffield, they — and those arriving by train — were ‘corralled' by the South Yorkshire Police officers and escorted to the stadium.

Approaching Hillsborough a buoyant, happy crowd filled narrow streets but there was no filtering to stagger arrival. Policing was viewed exclusively through a lens of hooliganism — the South Yorkshire Police operational order made no mention of safety or emergency procedures.

Old-style, malfunctioning turnstiles could not process the volume of traffic, causing a frightening crush at the notorious Leppings Lane bottleneck. Three years earlier an internal police memorandum warned that the ‘turnstiles do not give anything like the access to the ground needed by fans.'

Police officers were untrained in crowd management or safety. Custom and practice was infected by complacency graphically illustrated by a senior officer who commented that fans should be left to 'find their own level'. Medical cover was provided solely by St John's Ambulance volunteers.

Desperate to relieve the situation outside, a senior officer radioed the inexperienced match commander, Chief Superintendent Duckenfield, to open exit gates and bypass the turnstiles. The police control box was inside the ground, above the Leppings Lane terrace. CCTV monitors showed the severe congestion outside. Duckenfield also had a close-up view of the packed central pens. In easing the life-threatening crush at the turnstiles, a worse situation could develop on the terrace. He agreed to the request and the opened gates brought instant relief outside.

Fans walked into the stadium neither stewarded nor policed. A steep tunnel led down to the two packed, central pens. It did not occur to Duckenfield and his officers to close the tunnel gates and redirect incoming fans to the half-empty side pens.

Not realising the imminent danger, 2,000 fans entered the tunnel. Compression in the pens was immediate. Fans were trapped — no way back, forward or sideways. Faces were jammed against the perimeter fence, and in one pen a barrier, close to the bottom, collapsed bringing down a tangled mass of bodies. At kick-off the screams of the dying were drowned by the thunderous roar of the crowd. As fans tried to climb the perimeter fences to escape police officers forced them back.

Failure to close the tunnel before opening the exit gates was compounded by the failure to respond immediately and effectively to the distress in the pens. Once the police eventually opened the two narrow gates onto the perimeter track the full horror was revealed. Over 500 people were dead, dying or injured. The match was abandoned at 3.06pm.

Seemingly oblivious to the mayhem in his eye-line, Duckenfield concluded a ‘pitch invasion' was under way. He summoned reinforcements, including dog handlers. Then he told FA Chief Executive Graham Kelly, that fans had forced entry and rushed the pens. Unwittingly, Kelly transmitted the lie to the awaiting media. As the disaster was happening Liverpool fans were blamed.

On the pitch fans tore down advertising hoardings to carry the dead and dying. The inter-agency emergency plan failed. Only 14 of those who died made it to hospital. Eighty-two fans were laid out in body bags on the Hillsborough gymnasium floor. Polaroid photographs of the dead were pinned up in the foyer. Throughout the night bereaved relatives scanned the photographs, identified their loved ones — in body bags — brought on trolleys to the gymnasium door. No touching, no caressing — the bodies now ‘the property of the Coroner'.

Following Duckenfield's lie, the Coroner recorded blood alcohol levels of all victims including children — unprecedented in a disaster. The inference being, that through their actions they might be culpable. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was briefed by the police that a 'tanked-up mob' had rushed the stadium. Several newspapers, most notoriously The Sun, published unsubstantiated allegations from police off-the-record briefings that Liverpool fans had beaten, and urinated on, police officers administering first aid and had stolen from the dead.

Within months, Lord Justice Taylor's public inquiry established overcrowding as the ‘main cause' of the disaster and police mismanagement as the ‘main reason'. ‘Hooliganism' had played no part and the police, particularly Duckenfield, had ‘lacked candour'. Yet the allegations persisted, re-emerging at the inquests and all subsequent legal proceedings.

In 1998, having researched Hillsborough for nine years, I met a former police officer whose initial statement, made in the immediate aftermath, had been changed. Eventually, I accessed all police statements. Nothing prepared me for what I uncovered.

Immediately after the disaster the South Yorkshire Chief Constable, Peter Wright, appointed an internal team whose collective responsibility included ‘reviewing' all police statements and, in collaboration with the Force solicitors, ‘altering' the content.

I read all versions of all statements. Sentences were deleted, words added and officers ‘invited' to ‘reconsider' specified paragraphs. Criticisms of the police response to the disaster were deleted, deflecting blame towards fans. Worse still, I found that the investigating force, the Coroner, Lord Justice Taylor, the Official Solicitor and the Home Office were aware of the process.

Hillsborough was avoidable and foreseeable, the tragic consequence of neglectful custom and practice combined with institutional complacency. The suffering of the bereaved and survivors was heightened by their treatment at the gymnasium, by the vilification of fans, and by the inadequacy of the inquiries and investigations. Add to that the systemic corruption of police evidence.

Peter Joynes, whose son Nick died, comments, ‘Given all the evidence, it's impossible to believe or bear 20 years on no-one is held responsible for one of sport's biggest disasters'. It also defies reason that while many stadiums have undergone rebuilding, the safety of other venues — such as Windsor Park — remains compromised on big match nights.

Professor Phil Scraton PhD is in the School of Law, Queen's University Belfast. He is author of Hillsborough: The Truth, Mainstream, £9.99

This story was sourced from the Belfast Telegraph.

Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
News
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
Sport
football
Life and Style
Agretti is often compared to its relative, samphire, though is closer in taste to spinach
food + drink
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Kelly Osbourne will play a flight attendant in Sharknado 2
people
News
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
people
News
The dress can be seen in different colours
i100
Sport
Wes Brown is sent-off
football
Voices
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?