The Hillsborough Disaster: A Nightmare In The Stadium

Liverpool F.C captain, Jordan Henderson, carries flowers onto the pitch before the start of their game against Burnley F.C on 08/21/2021 in honor of, Andrew Devine, the Hillsborough disasters most recent and 97th victim

Imagine you’re at the stadium, you’re cheering with friends, got your beer in hand, your favorite team’s shirt on, and you’re ready to watch them play in the FA Cup Semifinals. But the energy suddenly shifts, something isn’t right. There are a few too many fans in the pen with you, then a few more, and a few more. You look around trying to figure out what’s going on when you realize the stadium is overrun. It’s past the full capacity limit, way past. The air around you becomes suffocating, you’ve lost your friends in all the commotion, and your only hope is to reach out to some fans in the terrace above your pen and hope they pull you to safety or climb the steel fence in front of you and tumble onto the pitch. What started out as such an exciting day had suddenly become a nightmare.

Hillsborough Stadium was built in 1899 to house Sheffield Wednesday F.C. Hillsborough hosted five Football Association Cup semi-finals in the 1980s. During the 1981 semi-finals when the Tottenham Hotspurs and Wolverhampton Wanderers a human crush occurred at the Leppings Lane End of the stadium when hundreds of extra spectators were allowed into the venue without being safely accommodated. Thirty-eight people suffered non-life-threatening injuries, luckily no fatalities were reported. Although, authorities believe there was a high chance that fatalities could have occurred if the swift action of police and fan had not happened. Police eventually suggested that the stadium reduce its capacity limit. In a post-match briefing to discuss the incident, Sheffield Wednesday chairman Bert McGee fired back against the criticism saying; “Bollocks—no one would have been killed”.  Okay, but how can you be so certain of something like that?

Regardless of McGee’s comment, the incident prompted Sheffield Wednesday F.C to adjust the layout of Leppings Lane End, dividing the terrace into three separate pens. These changes along with the ones that followed invalidated the stadium’s safety certification. The safety certification was never renewed at the maximum capacity of the stadium was never changed. The terrace was later divided into five pens in 1984 and a crush barrier that was located near the access tunnel was removed in 1986 to help improve the flow of fans entering and exiting the central part of the venue.

After the crush Hillsborough was not chosen to host another FA Cup semi-final until 1987.  There were severe issues of overcrowding at the 1987 quarter-final match between Sheffield Wednesday and Coventry City and later during the semi-final match between Coventry City and Leeds United. As is common in domestic matches in England fans of the teams are each assigned a side or section of the stadium. Leeds fans were assigned to Leppings Lane End. A Leeds fan told reporters that he witnessed disorganization at the turn styles and no police or stewards were helping to direct the flow of people. This cause one of the enclosures to become so crowded and compressed that at times he was unable to lift his hands to clap. Other accounts from spectators claimed that fans had to be pulled to safety to the terrace above.

Liverpool and Nottingham Forest met in the semi-final at Hillsborough in 1988 and fans that were in attendance reported yet another incident of crushing in Leppings Lane End. So, I’m noticing that his is becoming a gigantic problem. On March 20, 1989, Hillsborough was selected to host the 1989 FA Cup semi-finals match between Liverpool F.C and Nottingham Forest F.C. This prompted Liverpool F.C (who by now was seriously concerned about their fans safety) to file a former complaint to the Football Association ahead of their scheduled semi-finals Hillsborough match in 1989. I was not able to find any information on what happened to the complaint after it had been submitted. The match took place on April 15, 1989. Nottingham Forest supporters were assigned the South Stands and Spion Kop on the east end, with a capacity of 29,800 fans, it was accessible by sixty turnstiles separated along two sides of the ground.

Liverpool supporters were allocated the North and West ends Leppings Lane, with a capacity of 24,256 fans, accessible by twenty-three turnstiles from a narrow concourse. For this section I will give you a breakdown: Turnstiles numbered one to ten, granted access to 9,700 seats in the North Stand; another six turnstiles (numbered eleven to sixteen) provided access to 4,456 seats in the upper tier of the West Stand. Lastly, seven turnstiles (lettered A to G) provided access to 10,100 standing places in the lower tier of the West Stand. Even though Liverpool had more supporters, Nottingham Forest was given the larger area, to avoid the routes of rival fans crossing paths. At this time ‘hooliganism’ had loomed over the sport for some years, being most predominant in England. So, I guess it makes sense that you would not want fan paths to cross but why not give Liverpool the bigger section of the two? As a result of the stadium layout and segregation policy, turnstiles that would normally have been used to enter the North Stand from the east were off-limits and all Liverpool supporters had to converge on a single entrance at Leppings Lane. Ah, yes, as always safety first! Please, not my sarcasm.

On match day, television and radio reporters urged fans without tickets to not go near Hillsborough. Do they really think that’s going to work? Instead of establishing crowd safety as the priority, clubs, local authorities and the police viewed their roles and responsibilities through the ‘lens of hooliganism’. In 1988 three chartered trains transferred fans to Hillsborough to attend the semi-final match but for some reason by the time 1989 rolled around only one of those was still in operation. The 350 passengers arrived at the stadium around two-twenty in the afternoon. Many supporters were held up by road work, causing a minor traffic jam. Between two-thirty and two forty, supporters started to build up outside the turnstiles that faced Leppings Lane, eager to enter the stadium before the game began. At two forty-six, BBC’s football commentator John Motson had started to notice the imbalance of the distribution of fans in the Leppings Lane pens. While rehearsing for the match off-air, he told a nearby cameraman to check out the situation as well telling him that; “There’s gaps, you know, in parts of the ground. Well, if you look at the Liverpool end, to the right of the goal, there’s hardly anybody on those steps…that’s it. Look down there.” Things were already looking gloomy.

Outside of the stadium chaos ensued. A bottleneck of movement developed with more fans arriving than could be safely filtered through the turnstiles before three o’clock (when the match was scheduled to start). Supporters began presenting tickets at the wrong turnstiles and those who had been refused entry could not leave because of the hoard of people behind them. They instead stayed as an obstruction in the area. Fans outside could hear cheering as the teams came on the pitch ten minutes prior to the match starting, and as the match kicked off, but they were still unable to gain entrance causing them to become impatient and rowdy. A police constable radioed control requesting that the game be delayed for twenty minutes, as it had been two years before, to ensure the safe passage of supporters to their seats. For unknown reasons, the request was declined. With approximately 5,000 fans trying to enter through the turnstiles, and increasing safety concerns, the police, to avoid fatalities outside the ground, opened a large exit gate (Gate C) that permitted the free flow of supporters departing the stadium during a regular situation. Two further gates (A and B) were subsequently opened to try and help relieve the pressure. A rush ensued and thousands of supporters entered the stadium “steadily at a fast walk”.

Thousands of fans entered a narrow tunnel leading from the rear of the terrace into two overcrowded central pens (pens three and four), creating pressure at the front. At this time most English football stadiums had a steel fence between the stands and the pitch to avoid ‘pitch invasions.

Fencing that was around the perimeter of the terrace

Hundreds of people were pressed against one another and the fencing by the weight of the stampede behind them. Supporters that had just entered were unaware of the issues down by the fence. police or stewards usually stood at the entrance to the tunnel and, when the central pens reached capacity, directed fans to the side pens, but on this occasion, for reasons not fully explained, they did not do that. The match continued as fans steadily streamed into the stadium. For some time, problems at the front of the Liverpool goal pens went largely unnoticed except by those inside them and a few police at that end of the pitch. Liverpool’s goalkeeper, Bruce Grobbelaar, later reported that the behind him began pleading to him for help as the situation worsened. Oh my God, how sad is that? I can’t even imagine being the person pleading or the person hearing the pleas. The people were more or less pleading for their lives to be saved. Gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.

South Yorkshire Police Superintendent Greenwood noticed the severity of the situation and ran on the pitch to gain referee Ray Lewis’ attention. Lewis stopped the match at approximately five minutes past three. Fans climbed the fence in an effort to escape the crush and tumbled onto the track surrounding the pitch. By this time, a small gate in the fence had been forced open and some fans escaped via this route, as others continued to climb. Some supporters were pulled to safety by other supporters in the West Stand above the Leppings Lane terrace. The intensity of the crush broke more barriers on the terraces. Holes in the perimeter fencing were made by fans desperately attempting to rescue others. The crowd in the Leppings Lane stand spilled onto the pitch, where the many injured and traumatized fans who had climbed to safety had gathered.

Footballers from both teams were ushed to their respective dressing rooms and told that there would be a thirty-minute match postponement. One it’s a bit too late for that and two it’s going to be a hell of a lot longer than thirty minutes. Unfortunately, many fans were trapped in the pens, packed in tightly, causing some of them to pass away from compressive asphyxia while standing. In layman’s terms, those poor souls were crushed to death. On the pitch, police, stewards, and members of the St John Ambulance service were overwhelmed. They did not have enough manpower or equipment to handle all that was happening around them. Many uninjured fans tended to the injured; several attempted CPR and others tore down advertising signs to use as stretchers. Chief Superintendent John Nesbit of South Yorkshire Police later told fellow authorities that leaving the rescue to the fans was a deliberate strategy, stating that; “We let the fans help so that they would not take out their frustration on the police”. Really? Like is this man for real?

Protocol for the South Yorkshire Metropolitan Ambulance Service (SYMAS) was that ambulances were to line up at the entrance to the stadium, deemed the casualty reception point (CRP). Any individuals within the stadium in need of medical attention would quickly be led by police and paramedics to the CRP. The system of taking the injured to any new CRP location other than the original destinated spot required a formal declaration made by authorities in charge. Since this declaration was not immediately announced, confusion hung over those attempting to aid those on the pitch. This confusion spilled out to the first responders who were waiting in the ambulances in front of the stadium. Some medical staff was hesitant to leave their vehicles and head onto the pitch to help others because they didn’t know if patients or coming to them or vice versa. First responders that did leave their vehicles were stuck in a situation where they had a large distance between themselves and the medical equipment on their ambulance. The report filed by the SYMAS after the disaster explained that some ambulance crew did take equipment with them when heading to the pitch; but there had been no official direction to do so, so not all did. To further amp up the confusion, the first responders initially weren’t given any information about the situation inside the stadium.

Out of forty-two ambulances that arrived at the stadium, only two made it onto the pitch with a third later being asked to join them by police. Authorities were hoping that the visual sight would help calm some people down. I guess they assumed the more ambulances they have the safer people will feel. The remaining thirty-nine ambulances were collectively transported approximately 149 people to either Northern General Hospital, Royal Hallamshire Hospital, or Barnsley Hospital for treatment. Condolences quickly began to come in from all over the globe, led by Queen Elizabeth. Other messages came from Pope John Paul II, US President George H. W. Bush, and the chief executive of Juventus (fans of Liverpool and Juventus had been involved in the 1985 Heysel Stadium disaster), and many others. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Home Secretary Douglas Hurd visited Hillsborough the day after the disaster and met with the survivors. Anfield stadium (home of the Liverpool Reds) was opened on the following Sunday to allow fans to pay tribute to those who lost their lives.

Thousands of fans visited and the stadium was filled with flowers, scarves, and other tributes. Over the next few days, more than 200,000 people visited the “shrine” inside the stadium. The following Sunday, a link of football scarves spanning the one-mile distance across Stanley Park from Goodison Park to Anfield was created, with the final scarf in position at six minutes after three. At Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, a requiem mass attended by 3,000 people was held by the Catholic Archbishop of Liverpool, Derek Worlock. The first reading was read by Liverpool goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar. Liverpool players Ronnie Whelan, Steve Nicol, and former manager Joe Fagan assisted with the communion. The FA chief executive Graham Kelly, who had attended the match, said the FA would conduct an inquiry into what had happened. After the disaster, Kelly backed all-seater stadiums, stating “We must move fans away from the ritual of standing on terraces”. At the 1989 FA Cup Final between Liverpool and local rivals Everton, the players from both participating teams wore black armbands as a gesture of respect to the victims. During the final match of the 1988–89 English Football League season, between Liverpool F.C and second-place Arsenal F.C (GO GUNNERS!), Arsenal players presented flowers to Liverpool fans in different parts of Anfield Stadium in memory of those who had died in the Hillsborough disaster.

After all, was said and done, ninety-four people, aged from ten to sixty-seven years old, lost their lives on the day, either at the stadium, in the ambulances, or shortly after arrival at the hospital. A total of 766 people were reported to have suffered injuries, among whom 300 were hospitalized. The less seriously injured survivors who did not live in the Sheffield area were advised to seek treatment for their injuries at hospitals and doctors closer to their homes. On April 19, 1989, the death toll reached ninety-five when fourteen-year-old Lee Nicol died in hospital after his life support machine was switched off. In March 1993, the death toll rose to ninety-six when artificial feeding and hydration were withdrawn from twenty-two-year-old, Tony Bland, after nearly four years, during which time he had remained in a persistent vegetative state showing no sign of improvement. On July 27, 2021, Andrew Devine passed away from injuries he had sustained thirty-two years prior on that fateful day, he was fifty-five-years-old. The disaster had claimed its ninety-seventh victim.

Two sisters, three pairs of brothers, and a father and son were among those who died, as were two men about to become fathers for the first time: twenty-five-year-old Steven Brown of Wrexham and thirty-year-old Peter Thompson of Widnes. Jon-Paul Gilhooley, age ten, was the youngest person to pass away. His cousin, Steven Gerrard, then eight years old, went on to become Liverpool F.C.’s captain. Which is pretty amazing considering what he had been through. Gerrard has said the disaster inspired him to lead the team he supported as a boy and become a top professional football player. In his 2015 book ‘Gerrard: My Autobiography’ he ends with; “I play for Jon-Paul.” I’m not crying, you’re crying. The oldest person to lose their life at Hillsborough was sixty-seven-year-old Gerard Baron, older brother of former Liverpool player Kevin Baron. Stephen Whittle is considered by most to be another victim of Hillsborough. Because of work commitments, he had sold his ticket for the semi-final match to a friend (whom he and his family chose not to identify), who unfortunately died in the disaster; the resulting feeling of survivor guilt is believed to be the main reason Whittle took his own life in February 2011.

After the disaster, Lord Justice Taylor was selected to conduct an inquiry into the events. The Taylor Inquiry sat between May 15th and June 29, 1989, and published two reports: an interim report on August 1, 1989, which described the events of the day and immediate conclusions, and the final report on January 19, 1990, which outlined general recommendations on football ground safety. This became known as the Taylor Report. Taylor concluded that policing on the day “broke down” and “the main reason for the disaster was the failure of police control”. Attention was focused on the decision to open the secondary gates; he also concluded that the kick-off should have been delayed when asked. Sheffield Wednesday was criticized for the inadequate number of turnstiles at the Leppings Lane end and the poor quality of the crush barriers on the terraces. Lord Taylor decided that the behavior of Liverpool fans, including accusations of drunkenness, were secondary factors, and stated that most fans were: “not drunk, nor even the worse for drink”. Taylor further that in responding to the disaster there had been no fault on the part of the emergency services (St John Ambulance, South Yorkshire Metropolitan Ambulance Service and fire brigade).

The Taylor Report had a deep impact on safety standards for stadiums in the United Kingdom and the world. All of the steel fencing separating fans and the pitch was subsequently removed (allow fans an immediate means of escape should a tragedy like this ever take place again) and many top stadiums were converted to all-seated. Purpose-built stadiums for Premier League and most Football League teams since the report are all-seater. Chester City F.C.’s Deva Stadium was the first English football stadium to fulfill all of the safety recommendations of the Taylor Report, with Millwall F.C.’s The Den being the first new stadium to be built that fulfilled the requirements. In July 1992, the government announced a relaxation of the regulation for the lower two English leagues (League One and League Two). The Football Spectators Act does not cover Scotland, however, the Scottish Premier League chose to make all-seater stadiums a requirement of league membership. In England and Wales all-seating is now a requirement of the Premier League and of the Football League for clubs who have been in the Championship for more than three seasons.

The Hillsborough Independent Panel was constructed in 2009 by the British government to investigate the Hillsborough disaster, to oversee the disclosure of documents about the disaster and its aftermath, and to produce a report. On September 12, 2012, the first report was published and a website was simultaneously launched. The website contained 450,000 pages of material collected from eighty-five organizations and individuals over two years. The Hillsborough Independent Panel concluded that no Liverpool F.C fans were responsible in any way for the disaster and that the main cause was a “lack of police control”. The report also concluded that crowd safety was “compromised at every level” and overcrowding issues had been recorded two years earlier. The panel concluded that “up to forty-one” of the ninety-six who perished might have survived had the emergency services’ reactions and coordination been better. The number is based on postmortem examinations which found some victims may have had heart, lung, or blood circulation function for some time after being removed from the crush. The report stated that placing fans who were “merely unconscious” on their backs instead of in the recovery position, would have resulted in their deaths due to airway blockage. Their report was 395 pages long and had 153 key findings.

The report also concluded that the police had altered statements of approximately 164 witnesses. Approximately 116 of those statements had negative remarks about how the South Yorkshire Police handled the situation either removed or changed. Police had performed blood alcohol tests on the victims (some of them children) and ran computer checks on the national police database in an attempt to “impugn their reputation”. Then Conservative MP for Sheffield Hallam, Irvine Patnick, passed inaccurate and untrue information from the police to the press. The Independent Panel believed that, despite being dismissed by the Taylor Report, the idea that alcohol contributed to the disaster proved pretty durable. Documents included in the report confirmed that repeated attempts were made to find supporting evidence for alcohol being a factor, and that available evidence was significantly misinterpreted. It stated; “The weight placed on alcohol in the face of objective evidence of a pattern of consumption modest for a leisure event was inappropriate. It has since fuelled persistent and unsustainable assertions about drunken fan behaviour” 

On June 28, 2017, it was announced that six people were to be charged with offenses in relation to the disaster. Former Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, in charge of the match, faced ninety-five counts of manslaughter by gross negligence. Former Chief Inspector Sir Norman Bettinson faced four counts of misconduct in public office. Former Sheffield Wednesday F.C. Club Secretary Graham Mackrell faced a charge of breaching the Safety at Sports Ground Act 1975. Solicitor Peter Metcalf, former Chief Superintendent Donald Denton, and former Detective Chief Inspector Alan Foster were all charged with perverting the course of justice, for having altered sixty-eight police officers’ statements. On August 21, 2018, all charges against Norman Bettinson were dropped. On April 3, 2018, Graham Mackrell was found guilty on one count of breaching health and safety regulations at the stadium. On June 25, 2019, it was announced that Duckenfield would face a retrial, which was scheduled to start on 7 October at Preston Crown Court. On November 28, 2019, Donald Duckenfield was found not guilty on all ninety-five counts of manslaughter. On May 26, 2021, Donald Denton, Alan Foster, and Peter Metcalf were all found not guilty of perverting the course of justice. Honestly, is anybody surprised that none of the men were found guilty? Is that a shock to anyone?

When looking at the bigger picture more than ninety-seven people have lost their lives and countless were altered due to the Hillsborough Disaster. By the disaster’s 10th anniversary in 1999, at least three people who survived were known to have committed suicide. Another survivor had spent eight years in psychiatric care. There were cases of alcoholism, drug abuse, and collapsed marriages involving people who had witnessed the events. The lingering effects of the disaster were seen as a cause, or contributing factor, in all of these. Memorials have been set up in remembrance of the victims not only at Hillsborough and Anfield stadium but all over England. A tribute to that unfortunate day in April of 1989 and a reminder of a disaster that in reality is all too real of possibly happening again. 

On July 11, 2021, the 2020 European Cup Final between England (GO THREE LIONS!) and Italy were played at Wembley Stadium in London, England. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Wembley had to drop its normal maximum capacity of 90,000 to 65,000. For the first time since 1966 England had made it to a major event final and tickets were sold out. All 65,000 allotted seats had been claimed and fans were selling their tickets for insane amounts of money. Fans took over the streets of London including the one surrounding the stadium. There were so many people crowded together that you hardly had room to move. Flags were being worn, carried, and hung out of car windows. “IT’S COMING HOME!” chants could be heard all over. Honestly, I would have loved to have been there. Sitting at a pub, drinking a beer, kicking it with fellow fans, it must have been a crazy feeling. The crowd was rowdy and ready to watch their team battle for the top spot. Hundreds of people made their way to the base of the steps leading to the outside access of the upper levels. Stewards were overwhelmed when fans without tickets broke down barriers and forced their way inside, creating chaos.

Andrea Mancini, the son of Italy head coach Roberto Mancini, said: “There was a mess with ticketless fans and my seat had been taken, so I had to watch the first half sitting in the stadium’s steps. I found another place in the second half. Perhaps it brought good luck.” Families of players from both teams were affected. A group of Italian supporters, including the wife of midfielder Jorginho, were forcefully moved by the crowd. Family members of several England players were abused by some of the fans who had forced their way inside. An FA spokesperson released a statement after the incident saying; “Security and stewarding numbers for the UEFA EURO 2020 Final exceeded the requirements for the match and were greater than any other previous event at Wembley Stadium. However, the behaviour of the people who illegally forced their way into the stadium was unacceptable, dangerous and showed total disregard for the safety and security protocols in place. No steward or security staff should be subjected to this type of behaviour and we thank them for their support on the night. We also apologise to anyone at the match whose experience was affected by this unprecedented level of public disorder. These people are an embarrassment to the England team and to all of the true fans who wanted to enjoy one of the most important matches in our history.”

Nineteen Police officers were injured and no fatalities have been reported. So far a total of eighty-six people have been arrested in relation to the incident, approximately fifty-three of the arrests were at Wembley. England would go on to loose the final when the match against Italy went into penalty kicks.

I have no witty way of ending such a somber article. So, all I will say is stay alert, beware of your surroundings, be responsible for your behavior, and keep sports safe for fans all around the world.

“Andrew was an incredible person, someone who fought for 32 years against injuries that had been expected to end his life much sooner than they did. Knowing that people in this city and beyond are still suffering due to Hillsborough is heart-breaking, but all we can do is carry on being there for each other as best we can.” – Jordan Henderson

Liverpool Supporters spill onto the pitch trying to seek safety in Hillsborough on April 15,1989

Sources:

“Hillsborough Disaster” – Wikipedia

“England vs Italy” – ESPN

“Hillsborough – 1989 Stadium Disaster” – BBC News

“Hillsborough” – Liverpool F.C

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