On Saturday April 15, 1989, tens of thousands of football fans went to a stadium in Sheffield, Yorkshire to watch the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. 96 Liverpool fans would never come home, crushed to death on the terraces in one of the worst tragedies in British sporting history.
The police began to lose control of the unravelling situation. Due to a lack of space, the Liverpool fans streamed into pens which quickly became overcrowded. The authorities refused to listen to the desperate pleas of supporters, essentially treating them like animals, and the match kicked off on schedule at 3.00pm and was only halted at 3.06pm when the severity of the disaster was finally recognized by the authorities. Hundreds of injured fans poured onto the field, hoping to find medical help which never came. At that point, with the false suspicion of hooliganism hanging over them, many of the 96 had already died (one fan, left in a coma by the crush, passed away in 1993) and, in total, there would be 766 injuries (for an incredibly moving, and sad, account of that fateful day, read Brian Reade’s piece in the Daily Mirror).
In the immediate aftermath, some utterly disgusting fabrications and slurs were leveled against Liverpool fans. A tabloid newspaper, the Sun, ran an incendiary story, with its infamous headline The Truth. The article (though that does an injustice to the word “article”) alleged that Liverpool fans pickpocketed their own, urinated on the police and attacked officers supposedly attempting to save lives. The Truth? It was anything but and, to this day, much of Liverpool and its fans continue to boycott Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper.
(MORE: A Rush to Death at Hillsborough)
As for the families of ‘The 96,’ they refused to give up on their quest to uncover the truth and finally, 23 years on, the definitive answers are coming to light. On Wednesday, Prime Minister David Cameron spoke in the House of Commons after an independent report about the Hillsborough disaster, based on previously unseen documents, was published. Cameron said he was profoundly sorry for the “double injustice,” and spoke about three areas brought up in the report: authorities didn’t do enough to protect supporters, the police sought to blame the fans, and there was doubt cast over the original coroner’s inquest.
“The new evidence that we are presented with today makes clear that these families have suffered a double injustice,” Cameron said. “The injustice of the appalling events – the failure of the state to protect their loved ones and the indefensible wait to get to the truth. And the injustice of the denigration of the deceased – that they were somehow at fault for their own deaths.” His apology on behalf of the government was a first, and will go some way to help with the healing. Trevor Hicks, who lost two daughters that day, and is part of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, confirmed that the group would be pushing for criminal action against those involved, saying, “We feel a breakthrough has been made,” and, poignantly, that “the truth is out today and the justice starts tomorrow.”
Compiled by the Hillsborough Independent Panel, which analysed more than 450,000 pages of documents over the past 18 months, the document found that a staggering 164 police statements were identified for “substantive amendment,” with 116 “amended to remove or alter comments unfavourable to South Yorkshire Police.” Officers tried to besmirch the victims by seeing if they had criminal records, and medics tried to show they’d been drinking. And Sheffield authorities were aware that the stadium wasn’t safe. The Labour Party’s Andy Burnham, a fan of Liverpool’s nearest rivals Everton, who set up the independent panel, said that this was “a monumental cover-up and a sickening campaign of vilification against victims, grieving families, traumatized survivors and the city in shock.”
One of the main areas of contention was how the original inquest concluded that all the victims were either dead or brain dead by 3.15pm. Instead, by analysing post-mortem test results, the independent panel found that 28 of the 96 victims had no “obstruction of blood circulation” and there was “separate evidence that, in 31, the heart and lungs had continued to function after the crush.” Panel member and associate chief medical officer in the Department of Health, Dr. Bill Kirkup, said that, “in total, 41 people therefore had potential to survive after the period of 3:15. What I can’t say is how many of those could have been saved. But I can say is that the potential is of that order of magnitude.”
To put these startling new revelations into perspective, when the relatives of the dead saw the report on Wednesday morning, Hicks said the families gave the panel a standing ovation and that three people fainted in light of the news.
The powers that be at the Sun, both then and now, desperately tried to backtrack as the real facts emerged. Former editor Kelvin MacKenzie offered his “profuse apologies,” with his statement saying that “I published in good faith and I am sorry that it was so wrong.” (Hicks rejected his apology as “too little, too late”). Current editor, Dominic Mohan, was similarly contrite: “Twenty-three years ago the Sun newspaper made a terrible mistake. We published an inaccurate and offensive story about the events at Hillsborough. We said it was the truth – it wasn’t.”
English football is a far different place in 2012. More spacious stadiums are now the norm. In every corner of the globe, fans obsess over the English Premier League. But one constant of English football has always been the incredible spirit shown by Liverpool’s magnificent fanbase. Through good times and bad on the pitch – it might be a coincidence but the team has never enjoyed the same kind of success since Hillsborough – the fans still believe in their heroes, but have also never given up in their unflinching belief that truth and justice would prevail in a matter far more important than sport. Liverpool’s anthem, sung at their home ground of Anfield, as well as by all associated with the club around the world, is called “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” It couldn’t be more appropriate.