'This is a momentous day the families have waited 23 years for'

On a rainswept evening in Liverpool, a city gathered to reflect on half a lifetime of shared bereavement and injustice

The rain had lashed down for much of the day in Liverpool but as chilly evening came, the sun set brightly on a city that at last won acknowledgement for what it knew to be true these past 23 years.

Thousands gathered in front of St George's Hall next to the war memorial besides which a giant screen displayed the names of the innocent victims. "I was there on the day so it is still vivid," said council worker Mark Killen, 52, his eyes moistening. "I saw it as it was happening. I saw the stand fill up – there were too many in there, I saw it lifting in the middle. I was there at 2.40pm – there were no hordes of drunken fans," he said.

"I was brought up to be a decent human being and we were besmirched by what was said that day. On a personal level we were insulted."

John Davenport, a retired quantity surveyor had supported Liverpool all his life and had been at the Heysel stadium disaster. "My heart has been with the families through this period and I feel one of the biggest factors coming to this is the reporting of it which has created the impression with many people that the Liverpool supporters were a huge part of what happened. That is something that I have always felt is wrong," he said.

Before the vigil started, the city's Mayor, Joe Anderson, said: "This is a momentous day that the families and the city have waited 23 years for.

"It is absolutely clear that those affected were victims not only of a terrible event, but also of an unforgivable miscarriage of justice. They were aided and abetted by some sections of the media, who should now apologise for misleading the nation and smearing the reputation of Liverpool FC fans and the city.

"It is to the credit of families that they have never given up on their quest to find out what happened on that dreadful day. Now that we finally have the truth of what happened in 1989, we must make sure the families get the justice they deserve. I am calling on the Attorney General to apply to the High Court immediately to quash the original inquest verdicts so that a fresh inquiry can be held.

"Furthermore, those who played a role in the cover-up should be brought to account for their deceit and corruption. The people of Liverpool will stand shoulder to shoulder with the families as we seek to make sure they get justice they have sought for so long.

"We will never forget the impact the Hillsborough disaster had on the bereaved families, on the lives of those caught up in the disaster and the long journey the entire city has had to endure for the truth to be heard."

Flags at council properties have been flown at half-mast throughout the day in memory of the 96 and the city observed a two-minute silence at 3.06pm – the time the FA Cup semi-final was abandoned – as the bells at civic buildings rang out 96 times.

Families, survivors, politicians and members of Liverpool football club, gathered as famous faces of the city stood in quiet remembrance. Brendan Rodgers, the current Liverpool manager stood alongside comedian John Bishop, members of victims groups stood alongside civil leaders and residents – regardless of what football team they supported – joined to remember the tragedy that has haunted the city and those who remembered it since.

Judy Taylor, 51, watched the disaster unfold on television after the rest of her family had travelled to Sheffield. "It feels like it happened yesterday. I remember when they rang home, my mum checking everyone was OK. I am made up for the families but every one of them will now be thinking was my child one of those who could have survived?"

The vigil was addressed by Labour MP Andy Burnham who as a government minister ordered this inquiry after the ceaseless campaigning of victims' families. The spokespeople of the support groups spoke movingly of their struggle. Anne Williams, who has campaigned relentlessly for a new inquest for her son, Kevin, who was 15 when he died, said: "My son and 95 innocent Liverpool fans did not die an accidental death – they were unlawfully killed."

At the close of the vigil former Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish, who attended every one of the funerals of those killed, led the reading of the names of the victims before the crowd sang the Kop anthem You'll Never Walk Alone.