What I saw on April 15th, 1989

12th September, 2012 3:23 pm

15 April 1989.  As a 14 year old boy I witnessed, from the safety of another stand, 96 people be killed or fatally injured at Hillsborough.

Since then others, led by the awe-inspiring families of those killed and injured that day, have led the campaign to find out the truth about what happened.

Some of the findings of the Hillsborough Panel’s report are not news for those of who witnessed the disaster.  It was quite obvious the Police regarded the tragedy as a potential riot not a medical emergency. For a long time after the game had been suspended and the pitch become a makeshift triage centre and morgue, the biggest Police presence in the ground was a line of officers with dogs stationed on the halfway line to, I suppose, keep Liverpool supporters from attacking Nottingham Forest fans at the other end of the ground.  Many of those officers would have had first aid training and could have saved the lives of the men women and children dying just yards away from where they stood.

It doesn’t occur to you as a child but thinking back the number of ambulances attending the disaster was tiny.  I’m now a local councillor in a borough with a major Premier League stadium in it and know something about plans for disaster response, which gives me a better appreciation of just how pathetic the emergency service response to the unfolding disaster at Hillsborough was.

I saw fans die in front of me who were never seen by a paramedic and only received treatment from fellow supporters. I didn’t check the time of this but my recollection is this was a long time after the match abandoned at 15:06 and so would have been well after 15:15, the time by which the coroner infamously (and now shown to be wrongly) said all 96 people were medically dead.

But the news that 41 people – almost half the dead – had the potential to survive beyond 15:15 is just devastating. How many of those could have made it with a proper emergency response?

What is equally breath-taking is the depth of what can only be described as a conspiracy to shift blame from what was an obviously utterly inadequate Police operation to the fans.  I’m not easily shocked but the revelations of collusion both within senior ranks of the Police Force and the Police Federation (supported by Irvine Patnick then the Tory MP for Sheffield Hallam) to blacken the reputation of fans and save their own skins leave me stunned.  All must be investigated to see whether criminal charges should be brought.

It’s important to remember that in 1989 football and football fans were much more of a political issue than today.  This was long before the Premier League brought glamour and money to the English game. Riots at football matches were pretty common and the Hysel tragedy was fresh in the memory. The Thatcher Government’s response was the massively unpopular plan for all fans to have a compulsory ID card to enter grounds.  At the time of Hillsborough the campaign against ID Cards for football fans was causing the government some real problems and it’s easy to see how a Tory MP and The Sun thought they were helping Mrs Thatcher by blaming fans. At the time of writing I see the Independent Panel are saying they are “very wary” of linking the Police conspiracy to government but the political context of the day would have made it very clear what was helpful to the Government and what wasn’t without the need for a someone to ‘have a word’.

At the same time Ed Miliband is right to apologise for the length of time it took for Labour to open the files up.  Andy Burnham deserves immense credit for taking this step, but we should have done this in 1997 not in 2009.

For whatever reasons, perhaps because it was too upsetting or perhaps because events at Hillsborough didn’t have a long-lasting effect on my life, I have only followed the Hillsborough campaign from a distance. And what I have written now are just the first observations of someone who was there and so by definition only saw a limited amount of what happened.  But, as well as now unstoppable calls for justice against those who took part in the conspiracy to blame fans for their own preventable deaths, perhaps we now have an opportunity to learn the real lessons for the future about how we can ever stop this kind of tragedy being repeated.

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  • Thank you.

  • AnotherOldBoy

    A number of thoughts in response to this piece:

    (1) Lord Justice Taylor’s Interim Report explained why there was a line of p0lice on the halfway line: the Forest supporters (or some of them) thought the Liverpool fans were staging a pitch invasion and were singing and chanting on that basis, angering the Liverpool fans.  The South Yorkshire Police made numerous errors that day, but the decision to keep the different fans was not the worst of them (if it was an error).

    (2) The coroner did not find that all of the 96 (or even the 94 who died on the day) were dead at 3.15.  He found that they were beyond saving.  That now seems to be open to question, although whether any were is probably now entirely speculative.  As I read the Independent Panel’s report, lack of immediate, expert first aid (so that they were laid on their backs) would have been fatal to those who were not already dead or dying.  It is not at all clear that there was any prospect of such qualified first aid being available in time: for what it is worth, the Taylor Report praised the efforts of the St Johns Ambulance members and other medically qualfied people who were able to provide what help they could.

    (3) There is no doubt that South Yorkshire Police behaved disgracefully in the aftermath of the disaster in seeking to transfer blame to the fans and away from themselves.  That has been clear, at least, since Lord Justice Taylor’s Interim Report.  As I read the Independent Panel’s Report (and I have only done so quickly and may have missed something), the local MP was given what appear to be fictitious accounts of misbehaviour by fans by a number of police officers soon after the tragedy.  He was not a party to the fabrication although he did pass on what he had been told.

    (4) There is no basis for the suggestion that South Yorkshire Police, the MP or the Sun thought they were helping Mrs Thatcher by blaming the fans.  The SYP were trying to cover their own backs.  The MP was forwarding what he was told by several policemen.  The Sun was not alone in carrying stories critical of the fans, but it was particularly and unforgiveably offensive in the way it did so and Mr Mackenzie has been unrepentant.

    None of this detracts from the tragedy of Hillborough or exonerates those who tried to cover up their own responsibility for the dreadful loss of life.

  • Robert Castlereagh

    We should all be humbled.
    I saw personally how many lives were ruined by this.
    It was not just the dead and bereaved but the people brain damaged by lack of oxygen who suffer to this day.
    Many also who were in Sheffield and went on to the pitch to help were traumatised beyond measure.
    I personally know a fine upstanding man who worked at a local hospital and tried to bring the unrousable round and has never been able to work again.
    There is no-one in the North West who was not touched in some way by this tragedy and many many thousands are still living with some aspect of it, coming hard on the heels of the Piper Alpha disaster of the previous year.
    Merseysiders will never forgive the Sun and now with this report nor should the rest of the Country
    May those who perished now rest in peace in the knowledge that they were truly blameless. This knowledge is more help to the families than anything that has gone before.

  • John Reid

    Just A small correction it was the South Yorkshire police Federation, Who met to discuss the tragedy not the Police federation as you have put.

  • telemachus

    Ed Milibands speech after the PM was magnificent in its humanity

  • AlanGiles

    I wonder if the Sun “newspaper” will have the grace to apologise for the libels it made against the Hillsborough victims on the Monday after the disaster?.  they made some very grave allegations. No I suppose they will have something more important to discuss, like the latest gossip on Eastenders

    It is sad though the truth only comes out in cases like this where the guilty police officers and officials probably retired years ago and so are beyond punishment.

    • Chilbaldi

      They should print a front page apology tomorrow. Will they? Doubtful.

      • AnotherOldBoy

        They have done.

  • franwhi

    I wonder if Jack Straw will have the grace to apologise for not having the will to open an inquiry at the request of the Hillsborough victims families 13 years ago. 

  • Daniel Speight

    So the lack of action between 1997 and 2009, is anyone in the Blair governments prepared to stand up and accept blame?

  • Pingback: Look Left – The Hillsborough Report, the Olympic legacy, and decarbonisation | Left Foot Forward()

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