The open gate that led to death

Hillsborough: Ten years ago tomorrow a Sheffield stadium witnessed the worst tragedy in British sporting history
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The Independent Online
LIVERPOOL AND Nottingham Forest travelled to Sheffield on 15 April 1989 to contest an FA Cup semi-final, just as they had done in the same competition in the same place the previous year. Under the headline "Welcome Back" in the match programme, the Sheffield Wednesday chairman, Bert McGee, wrote: "As you look around Hillsborough you will appreciate why it has been regarded for so long as the venue for all kinds of important matches. It is a stadium that befits such occasions and the large crowds they attract." On the final page was the message: "Good luck to both teams, and have a safe journey home." The events that day were to cost 96 people their lives.

It had been a bright, sunny afternoon. Many of the 54,000 supporters arrived early and took their places in the allotted ends of the ground, the Forest fans primarily on the Spion Kop, and the bulk of the Liverpool fans in the West Stand at the Leppings Lane end. The pre-match mood was later described in Lord Justice Taylor's inquiry into the disaster as "one of carnival, good humour and expectation".

The terraces of the Leppings Lane stand had only seven turnstiles to serve 10,000 ticket-holders. The first to arrive poured into pens No 3 and No 4 behind the goal, and the centre of the terrace quickly became congested. Just before 2.30pm, the number of people in Leppings Lane increased dramatically and suddenly there were 5,000 queuing to get in.

At 2.47pm, Supt Roger Marshall, in charge of the section, became concerned that those waiting outside were in danger of being crushed and he called for another entrance (gate C) to be opened. At 2.52pm Supt Marshall was granted permission by Chief Supt David Duckenfield, the man in overall charge of policing. Against the advice of stewards, 2,000 fans piled in. It was evident that there were problems, but calls by police inside the ground to delay the match went unanswered.

Once through the gate, the 2,000 found themselves in an open area, off which there was a 23-metre tunnel leading to pens No 3 and No 4, already packed full. No one in police control had told those inside that the gates were to be opened or to redirect the supporters to the less crowded flanks of the terrace. Lack of signs inside drew people into the tunnel and into the pens. The crushing in both the tunnel and the pens, already dangerous, intensified.

"People were walking on other people's heads to get out from the crush," one supporter said the next day. "People were collapsing and people were trying to push others out of the way to help those on the floor. People were being sick. People were shouting for help to those at the front to open the gates to let them be dragged out but it seemed so slow in opening the gates."

At 2.54pm the teams came out and the crowd surged forward. In the tunnel to the pens, people were packed so tightly they could not breathe. "There was an old bloke next to me," one fan said. "He asked me to hold his head in my arms. He said to me 'help me' and then he just died in my arms." Behind them people were still coming in, stopping any retreat.

At 3pm the match kicked off and there was another surge at the front. Calls for the fencing to be pulled down were ignored and some supporters were pulled from the terrace by those in the stand above.

"The pressure stayed and for those crushed breathless by it, standing or prone, life was ebbing away," said the report. Some started to climb over the high, spiked fences on to the perimeter track. On the pitch, Liverpool's Peter Beardsley hit the post at 3.04pm and there was another surge. "It was mainly youngsters in front of me," said one fan who had been close to the fencing. "I realised it was serious when I saw one of the lasses standing near me just turn blue in the face. She went down. She was dead. That was it." Lord Justice Taylor said later in his report: "It was truly gruesome. The victims were blue, cyanotic, incontinent; their mouths open, vomiting; their eyes staring."

Police in the control room thought the problem was crowd trouble and called for dog handlers from HQ. Such a decision seems barbaric now, but 10 years ago, with hooliganism still widespread and many football grounds inhospitable and menacing, they were not alone in their initial reaction. Closer to the pitch, Supt Roger Greenwood realised what was really happening and radioed for the match to be stopped. When that failed, he ran on to the pitch and told the referee to get the players off.

By 3.12pm, the perimeter fencing was being pulled down with bare hands but it was too late. The dead and injured were carried away on advertising hoardings ripped down to serve as makeshift stretchers. The first ambulance arrived at Leppings Lane at 3.13pm, but access to the pitch was obstructed. Twenty minutes later, another ambulance tried to drive on to the pitch but the driver was told by a policeman: "You can't go on there, they're still fighting." Few in the ground had any idea what was happening.

At 3.47pm Kenny Dalglish, the Liverpool manager, addressed the crowd, calling for co-operation with the police and the first-aid teams. It was 20 minutes later that the crowd received their next advice, to hold on to their tickets. "The match will be abandoned," an announcer said.

The bodies of the dead were taken to the makeshift mortuary in the Hillsborough gymnasium. There were harrowing scenes as unsympathetic and obstructive policemen denied relatives access to the bodies of their loved ones.

A number of relatives faced hours, and, in some cases, days of anxiety as they waited for information. Philip Hammond, aged 14, had gone to the game with friends. His father, Phil, saw events unfold on television and rang the coach company with whom his son was travelling. They assured him the coaches were returning full, but when Philip failed to come home and a friend called at the house to say he had lost him in the confusion, Philip's brother Brian set off for Sheffield. Late on the Saturday night, a policeman called at the Hammond house and, seeing him, Phil said: "Don't tell me. He's dead." The policeman replied: "No, he's alive," and told Phil to phone a Sheffield number for information. At this point Brian arrived home and broke the news that he had already identified his brother's body.

The case was not isolated, and if the nightmare of the victims and their relatives had not been enough, the story that went around the world that night, courtesy of Chief Supt Duckenfield, was that the fans had brought the disaster on themselves by smashing down gate C. They had not, of course, but the truth was not a priority.

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