In Good Conscience

Cover-up compounded tragedy of fatal errors at Hillsborough

Hillsborough has been the worst word in the English dictionary for the greater part of my working life. I will not be able to go to Sheffield, even to drive past the dreadful Leppings Lane entrance of that stadium without remembering the sight of 96 men, women and children being crushed to death - and the sight of 766 others gasping for breath.

No court of law, and no verdict, will ever bring back those who died innocently following their Liverpool team to play in the April 1989 FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest.

No dignity ranks higher in my judgment than that of Trevor and Jenni Hicks, who went with their two daughters, Sarah, 19, and Vicki, 15, to support their team as a family.

Mrs Hicks had a seat in the main stand. Trevor and his daughters had tickets for the standing terrace behind the Leppings Lane goal.

Father and daughters were separated when he went for a coffee before kick-off. The deadly surge allowing hundreds more Liverpudlians into the section of the stand already crammed to capacity left Trevor searching for, and sadly, one by one finding the bodies of his children.

"It was the one thing we did together as a family," Mr Hicks memorably said. "Going to the match together."

Going, but not returning.

A woman and child arrive at the memorial service held at Anfield on April 15 for the 96 victims of the Hillsborough disaster. PHOTO: REUTERS

The Hicks family was destroyed. The 23-year marriage of Trevor and Jenni dissolved under the strain. Yet both of them became the faces and the voices of the Hillsborough Family Support Group.

Because of their ability to communicate, and to represent others, they contributed hugely to the 27-year fight to clear the Liverpool victims' names of police and media insinuations that horrifically turned their loved ones from victims into the cause of their own demise.

Police hierarchy falsely accused fans of drunkenness, some of forcing their way in without tickets. Those assertions, believed too readily by newspapers and broadcasters, are discredited now as lies, damned lies.

Hillsborough was a tragedy of catastrophic proportions. The cover-up by the establishment, the lies of police chiefs who failed in their duty of care to the public, was almost immediate. And up until this week's verdict following a coroner's inquest, the families of the 96 were never going to go away and allow the injustice to prevail.

It took a jury of nine people to come up with a majority seven-to-two verdict that each of the 96 were "unlawfully killed". And, by unanimous verdict, the jurors concluded that Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, the commander at that ill-fated match, was guilty of "manslaughter by gross neglect".

Duckenfield, now 71, admitted, a quarter of a century after the horror, that he gave the order to open the Leppings Lane gates. And that in turn led to the mass overcrowding and the deaths.

From where I sat in the press box adjacent to Leppings Lane, the lethal overcrowding was evident.

I had attended a previous football match, between Manchester United and Leeds United, where the Manchester police force allowed me to attend pre-game briefings, planning, crowd control measures, and to attend the game itself alongside police officers.

The core of the planning was two-fold. Throughout the 1980s, policing the so-called "English Disease", the hooliganism that spread across Europe from English terracing, grew into almost a war-like confrontation between rival fans, and the police and stewards.

Caging in fans to separate them was a wretched move, but it appeared a necessary part of security.

Manchester's police were thorough, well drilled, and as uncompromising as they needed to be. Their priority was prevention. And the cages, treating humans like animals, were designed in Manchester so that police could unlock the gates between them at a moment's notice.

That facility was not there in Sheffield. The fencing, right across the length of the stand, was there for only one purpose: To prevent spectators encroaching onto the pitch.

And that abominably designed steel fencing had a single, narrow gate towards the left-hand corner. When the fans were allowed in at the back, panic set in and the crush compressed those at the front, many of them children, against the metal.

Others were forced on top of one another, but it is the sight of kids at the front that has never stopped haunting me.

Whoever designed that fencing, and approved the safety certificate, is almost as culpable in my mind as the police chief who ordered the unlocking of gates at the entrance. The narrow, three-foot wide "escape" gate acted like a funnel, thwarting desperate people who were seeking the exit.

In the aftermath of Hillsborough, fencing has largely gone from English stadiums, though it lamentably still exists elsewhere. Premier League stadiums are all-seating, though in Germany, Borussia Dortmund for example, allows supporters to stand if they so prefer.

Hillsborough was a supposedly neutral venue in 1989. So fans, not knowing where they were rushing, entered a deathtrap. The aftermath has festered for 27 years, including two full years of the coroner's inquest leading to Monday's verdicts.

Police hierarchy falsely accused fans of drunkenness, some of forcing their way in without tickets. Those assertions, believed too readily by newspapers and broadcasters, are discredited now as lies, damned lies.

We know that many rank and file officers, ambulance and first-aid workers and fans, did their best in horrific circumstances. We know, because Duckenfield finally admitted under oath that he made the wrong call and lacked experience to take charge of such a situation.

The biggest establishment crime was to distort the truth, from the government of the day down. Those of us who cherish living in Britain under the rule of law we trusted are losers in this.

The cover-up was worse even than the neglect.

Liverpool will never walk alone in this. And for some, this is a fresh start rather than the end. There will be court cases seeking to put the ageing, apparently mentally ailing, Duckenfield back in the dock.

What the Hicks family fought for - clearing the names of the victims - has been achieved. Others will press on for compensation and retribution against the establishment that for so long politicised the awful tragedy that was Hillsborough.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 30, 2016, with the headline 'Cover-up compounded tragedy of fatal errors at Hillsborough'. Print Edition | Subscribe