I doubted this day would come. But the Hillsborough families never gave up

James Lawton, who saw the horror of Hillsborough unfold from the stands, pays tribute to the victims' relatives who refused to give up the fight

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There was a time when you thought it would never go away, none of it – the raw anger that was locked into the families of the victims of Hillsborough and made it impossible for them to grieve in any natural way, the terrible lies and evasions and smearing of 96 innocent people and that appalling belief there would always be a condescending message from some defender of the establishment that it was time to move on.

But how do you move on when you know you will never be able to calm the rage inside you? Where is there to go but a daily sense of your betrayal of those loved ones so needlessly lost?

That was the enduring horror of Hillsborough that was so profoundly relieved yesterday when the unvarnished report of an Independent Panel was handed to the families and the Prime Minister David Cameron made the unstinting apology for which they had worked, so often at the point of despair over 23 years.

No, it wasn't closure because that cannot happen until the guilty are arraigned according to the law and not a single life that might have been rescued that pitiless day can be restored but what happened yesterday, you had to believe, was something that for so long had seemed almost as unattainable.

It was, from that first morning the Prime Minister Mrs Thatcher arrived at Hillsborough with a bunch of flowers and an entourage of officials who, it is on the record now, had so much to defend and obscure, the first time that the real story was being told and recognised, quite unequivocally, by the holder of the highest office in the land.

The truth is that when David Cameron told the House of Commons that a terrible wrong had been exposed you didn't have to be a relative to feel a great weight lift from your shoulders.

You had only to understand that the fabrication that for all these years had defiled the belief that you could trust those responsible for the safety of ordinary people had come crashing down.

The celebration, or perhaps it was simply relief, of this was maybe more intense, if circumstances had taken you, as they had me, to the Leppings Lane entrance of Hillsborough roughly half an hour before the kick-off of the semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. There are two abiding memories of those moments. One is of shock. The other is of powerlessness.

It was not necessary to have any professional knowledge of public safety to know that something was terribly amiss.

A mounted policeman was quite unable to relieve the pressure of a crowd building in front of the locked gates yet a few yards away a group of police officers talked among themselves. There was, it was immediately apparent, a vacuum of leadership, one which would eventually be confirmed by the Taylor Report.

The details of those steps to disaster would become grimly familiar soon enough, along with the smear that the problem was created by drunken, late-coming fans, but before a life was lost there had to be an unshakeable foreboding.

When the gate was unlocked, when the fans were funnelled into that end of that ground which lacked a safety certificate, it was for 96 men and women and children no less than a death sentence, and the anger that would never leave you was rooted in the random nature of their fate.

At the other end of the ground housing Nottingham Forest fans, where you had been directed by police who admitted the situation was hopeless at Leppings Lane, it was another world of light and space.

So you took your place in the stand and you pointed your finger at Leppings Lane and said to a colleague you worried that people might well die. Around about then the Liverpool goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar began signalling frantically to officials. He knew beyond any doubt that a nightmare was unfolding.

Then you walked down on the field among the dead and the dying, some of whom we are told might have been brought back but for a catastrophic failure by the ambulance service, and you saw the fans who would soon be briefed against by the South Yorkshire Constabulary, making their desperate, unpractised attempts to save life on a day on which they had come to watch football in the spring sunshine.

Of course, you carried such horror with you and it could only be magnified by the stories of all those relatives whose new lives of anguish started with their heart-breaking attempts to identify their dead.

Every family had such stories but one that lingers in the mind hauntingly and with a particular force is the one of the Joynes family, who lost their graduate son Nicholas. On an afternoon and early evening of harrowing tension their ordeal was, apparently, over when a friend called to say that he had seen Nicholas and he was safe. Nicholas's father Peter took out a bottle wine to celebrate but then the phone rang again. The friend had been mistaken.

The battle of the Hillsborough families has always been driven by the need for absolute truth as well as justice - and it was this that was most emphatically recognised by the Prime Minister yesterday.

The fury that drove it was the appalling sense that the meaning of their relatives' lives had been so easily brushed aside by an uncaring establishment willing to sacrifice every value but the reputation of those who were most responsible. When a civil prosecution of the police failed at Leeds Crown Court, and when the police's own inquiry conducted by the West Midland force heard evidence at an office of the Liverpool Echo, there was the draining belief, at least in this witness, that the harshest reality would always be obscured.

That was a feeling that seemed to run bone-deep in most everybody but the families who refused to be turned back into any understanding that all that was left was a grief that could never be truly eased, never allowed to take its own course.

Yesterday when David Cameron spoke to the nation inevitably you were taken back to those scenes of confusion and desperate pain. You remembered the worst of sights, the awful draining of hope, the inevitable mounting of anger, and of course none of it became less raw or forgettable.

But there was, you could be confident, a revived strength in those who had fought so long to restore the good name and some purpose for the memory of those loved ones from whom they had been so shockingly separated.

It was a rupture that could, of course, never be truly repaired but there had always been something necessary to be done. This was the straitening of accounts, a proper rendition of all that passed, and when it came from the Despatch Box of the House of Commons yesterday the success of the endeavour could hardly have been more resounding.

Also provoked was the memory of a distraught man at Hillsborough who cried, to no-one in particular, "The truth about this day must be told."

It took a little time, but now it has been done and the air is that much clearer – and easier to breathe.

James Lawton was commended for his coverage of the Hillsborough disaster at the British Press Awards in 1989

How Hillsborough changed my life: Voices from the disaster

The paramedic

Tony Edwards was the only paramedic at the Leppings Lane end of the Hillsborough stadium

"The 95 [who died on the day] – were they beyond rescue at 3.15pm? I never believed that and I won't believe that. I don't believe at all that 95 people can all die within a few minutes of each other, just by human bodies. You had to be there.

"In my own opinion, I believe we could have saved some people. I think we would have had a very different situation had we stayed in the ground and had we had other ambulances or even ambulance crews coming along.

"It is something that has changed my life. It is something that has made a big impact on me, on my health and how I deal with things."

The priest

On the evening of the Hillsborough disaster, Father Tom Williams, a lifelong Everton fan, held a service at the Our Lady Immaculate church a few hundred metres from the entrance to Anfield. He is now an auxiliary Bishop of Liverpool

"A lot of children came to that service wearing their Liverpool and Everton strips. My prayer and thought then was that we had to survive and establish the truth. I personally knew four of the victims and I attended the funerals of six or seven of those who died.

"Over the following years, I have got to know a lot of the families who lost loved ones. There is such a sense of injustice because it just seemed that no one was ever prepared to tell the full truth... From a pastoral point of view, everyone has wanted closure. You cannot have peace unless it is linked to justice."

The relative

Claire McGlone was a toddler when her father, Alan, was killed at Hillsborough. She has grown to know her father, who was 28, through the prism of the disaster and the investigation of the independent panel

"I was 13 or 14, I think, when I started knowing my dad was in a crowd and there were a few people and people got hurt. Everything from my dad's body, files, statements, any bit of camera evidence we could get our hands on, we have.

"The video footage we've seen is just horrendous. Just knowing when you are looking at what's happening there are people standing there not helping, they're not helping my dad.

"A policeman says he appeared dead. Now I don't know how you appear when you are dead but he doesn't check him.

"I just think [the report] is going to bring a level of understanding."

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