The senior policeman in charge on the day of the 1989 Hillsborough disaster made an extraordinary – and unexpected – apology for his lie to FA officials that Liverpool fans had forced open a gate at the stadium, when he in fact had ordered it be opened.
Amid gasps from 200 relatives at the Warrington inquests, David Duckenfield, the match commander, apologised to the families of the 96 fans who were fatally crushed on the terraces at the FA cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest in April 1989. He conceded that the lie had been a “major mistake” that had “added to their trauma”.
The comments were widely repeated in the press at the time of the disaster on 15 April 1989. It was, in fact, Mr Duckenfield who had ordered Gate C at the ground to be opened, leading to thousands of fans pouring into the already overcrowded terraces, causing the crush.
It’s the first time the 70-year-old former chief superintendent has directly apologised to the families in almost 26 years since the disaster or during two days in the witness box.
He admitted that when FA secretary Graham Kelly, his colleague Glen Kirton and Sheffield Wednesday secretary Graham Mackrell entered the police control box at 3:15pm to speak to him, he told them fans had forced open the gate.
“I deeply regret what happened on the day,” he said. “It was a major mistake on my part and I have no excuses. I apologise unreservedly to the families and I hope they believe it is a very sincere apology.”
He said at the time it was a terrible lie in that everybody knew the truth “the fans and police knew the truth that we’d opened the gates”.
Questioned further by Christina Lambert QC for the coroner Sir John Goldring, he said he was deeply ashamed, embarrassed, greatly distressed about events and his comments were “wrong and completely open to misinterpretation”.
It was something he would regret until “his dying day”. Although other witnesses claimed he said fans “stormed” the gates, he couldn’t recall saying that. He acted without “thinking of the consequences and the trauma, the heartache and distress that the inference would have caused to those people who were already in a deep state of shock and who were distressed”.
Mr Duckenfield said he had “heaped upon them further damage when they had got problems enough.”
He had no idea of his motivation although he has “long thought this through over 26 years.” Describing himself as very honest, he said no one can understand his behaviour on that day – “least of all me.”
Earlier, he admitted making a grave mistake in not considering the consequences of ordering Gate C to be opened.
He said it was fair to say it is “arguably one of the biggest regrets of my life.” He said he didn’t foresee where fans would go and his mind “went blank” in the face of the enormity of the situation.
Asked by Ms Lambert if it was obvious that fans climbing out of the central pens might be connected to the ingress of supporters through Gate C, he said it was not.
Earlier, he said there had been a four-hour “blank” period in his mind following the morning briefing to officers until the time he arrived in the police control box. The inquests heard he resisted an initial request from Superintendent Bernard Murray to open Gate C to let fans in because Mr Duckenfield was concerned about the potential for public disorder – with ticketless fans, those who were drunk or had weapons – getting in.
He said he noticed nothing untoward from the police control room at 2:59pm, as the match kicked off, when he looked towards the Leppings Lane terraces.
He admitted making “mistake after mistake” in the preparation for the match following his promotion to chief superintendent and conceded his best “wasn’t good enough.”
The inquests continue.