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.