Remembering the tragic Hillsborough disaster of 1989


By Geryl Ogilvy

Ninety-six football fans lost their lives in the Hillsborough disaster on April 15, 1989, an event that shook the modern footballing world.

It should come as no surprise that the tragedy remains fresh in the minds of the people, in particular the British public and Liverpool Football Club fans alike, 32 years on.

The victims – men, women and children, the youngest being 14 – had come to support their team in a semi-final FA Cup tie between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough stadium.

The match was televised live globally. To the horror of the spectators and those watching on the telly, overcrowding in the standing-only section behind the goal post of the Liverpool supporters led to the people being crushed against the fan barriers.

The crush was so great that the fencing collapsed, injuring 766 people.

Ninety-four died on the day itself. One person died at the hospital a few days later and the last victim, who was in a vegetative state following the crush, never regained consciousness, eventually dying in 1993.

It was the highest death toll in British sporting history.

The Hillsborough stadium disaster led to the Taylor Report, which recommended that all major stadiums be converted to an all-seated model, where all ticketed spectators should have seats to prevent overcrowding.

The football league in England and Scotland introduced regulations that required clubs in their top two divisions to comply with these recommendations by August 1994.

While the report stated that standing accommodations were not intrinsically unsafe, the government decided that no standing accommodation (standing terraces) would be allowed. Also gone were the fences surrounding the pitch as a number of safety improvements were made in football grounds across Great Britain.

Events that led to the Hillsborough disaster

Hillsborough disaster memorial
People visit Hillsborough disaster memorial on April 20, 2013 in Liverpool, UK. Hillsborough disaster was a stadium crush on April 15, 1989 which resulted in 96 deaths.

The semi-final clash between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest took place on a Saturday, April 15, 1989. Tickets to the 53,000 capacity stadium were already sold out, with fans from both sides heading to Hillsborough stadium for the 3pm kick-off.

With hooliganism in English football at its height in the 80s, segregation of the fans needed to be enforced strictly.

As such, Liverpool supporters were allocated the smaller end of the stadium, Leppings Lane, so that their route would not come in contact with Forest supporters coming from the south.

The North and West ends (Leppings Lane), held 24,256 fans, reached by 23 turnstiles from a narrow concourse.

Meanwhile, Nottingham Forest supporters were allocated the South Stand and Spion Kop on the East Stand, with a combined capacity of 29,800 reached by 60 turnstiles spaced along the two sides of the ground.

Fans began to arrive at Leppings Lane stand around noon. Only seven turnstiles at the west entrance were allocated for the 10,100 ticketed Liverpool supporters for the two standing-only terraces.

At the time, it was common practice in football grounds that terraces be divided into “pens” by high fences to separate fans into blocks, as well as from the pitch.

According to the second coroner’s inquests held between April 1 and 26, 2016, the jury was told that entrance tunnel led supporters directly into the two pens, marked pens 3 and 4, situated behind the goal, while access to other pens (1 and 2) was poorly marked.

There was no proper system on the day to ensure fans were evenly distributed across the pens. The lack of personnel to monitor entries made counting the crowd in each pen difficult. The police had expected supporters to find their own sections and to spread across the pens in search for space. However, movement between the pens was difficult due to narrow gates of the entrance tunnels.

By 2.15pm, a large crowd had built outside Leppings Lane turnstiles as progress at the turnstiles was slow. Inquests heard that half an hour before kick-off, only 4,383 people had entered, meaning some 5,700 fans with tickets were still outside the ground.

By 2.45pm, CCTV footage showed thousands of people pressing into the turnstiles alongside a large exit gate, marked Gate C. The inquests were told that the funnel-shaped nature of the area meant that congestion was hard to escape for those at the front. The limited turnstiles became hard to operate and people were getting crushed at the entrance.

Meanwhile, the police officer in charge of the section had told the inquests that he thought people might get killed unless the exit gates were opened to alleviate the pressure at the turnstiles. Several requests were made before recently appointed match commander, South Yorkshire Police Chief Supt David Duckenfield gave the order to open the gates.

About 2,000 fans made their way into the ground, mostly entering through Gate C, which headed straight for the tunnel leading to the already overcrowded central pens 3 and 4.

This led to an influx of supporters and severe crushing occurring in the pens. The official combined capacity of pens 3 and 4 was 2,200. It was later discovered that the safety certificates to the pens had not been updated since 1979, despite several modifications made to the ground over the past decade.

Witnesses said some of the people had begun to climb over the side fences into the less packed adjoining pens to escape. By 2.59pm, right before kick-off, fans in the two central pens were seen pressed up against the fences and being crushed against the barriers.

Hundreds of people were pressed against each other and the fencing, with the weight of the incoming crowd worsening the situation as those entering were unaware of the problems going on at the fence.

When the match began as scheduled at 3pm, the crowd was still streaming into pens 3 and 4. Meanwhile, the problems at the front of the section went largely unnoticed by the authorities.

It is understood that Liverpool’s goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar had reported that fans behind him were pleading with him to seek help as the situation worsened. At approximately 3.04pm, a shot from Liverpool’s Peter Beardsley hit the bar.

Possibly connected to the excitement, a surge in pen 3 caused one of the metal crush barriers to give way, causing the people to fall on top of each other. There were accounts among survivors of people losing consciousness before their eyes.

At 3.06pm, Supt Roger Greenwood ran to the pitch and told the referee to stop the game.

Fans started to climb the fence in an effort to escape the crush, going onto the track. Fans had also forced open several parts of the collapsed fencing in a desperate attempt to escape. Other fans were pulled to safety by those in the West Stand above (upper tier) the Leppings Lane terrace.

The crowd from the terrace overspilled onto the pitch with many traumatised.  Many were still trapped in the pens  and it is understood that many victims died of compressive asphyxia.

Disastrous emergency response

In the chaotic aftermath, supporters tore up advertising billboards to use as makeshift stretchers as they tried to administer first aid to the injured. The authorities’ response to the disaster was deemed by many as slow and poorly coordinated.

Police delayed declaring a major incident and staff from the South Yorkshire Metropolitan Ambulance Service at the ground also failed to recognise and call a major incident.

Firefighters with cutting gear had difficulty getting into the grounds. Although dozens of ambulances were dispatched, access to the pitch was delayed because the police were reporting “crowd trouble”. Two ambulances eventually reached the Leppings Lane end of the pitch and of the 96 people who died, only 14 were ever admitted to hospital.

Confusion arose among first responders, as the agreed protocol was for the ambulances to queue at the entrance of the gymnasium, termed casualty reception point, or CRP. Any individuals in need of medical attention were to be delivered expeditiously by police and paramedics to the CRP.

The system of ferrying the injured victims from any location within the stadium to the CRP required a formal declaration by the person in charge for it to take effect. As the declaration was not immediately performed, confusion reigned over those administering aid on the pitch. Some ambulance crews were also hesitant to leave their vehicle, unsure whether patients were coming to them or vice versa.

Meanwhile, players from both teams were rushed to the dressing room and told there was a 30-minute delay. (The match would be abandoned and the fixture replayed at Old Trafford, Manchester, on May 7, 1989 with Liverpool winning and going on to win the FA Cup.)

As for the jury of the inquests, police errors in planning, defects at the stadium and delays in the emergency response contributed to the disaster. In an age where football hooliganism had reached its heights in English football, the behaviour of the fans was not to blame.

The jury found that Duckenfield had breached a duty of care to fans in the stadium that day, which amounted to gross negligence and that the 96 victims were unlawfully killed.

Unfortunately, Duckenfield was new to his post and had limited experience in policing football matches. Even though Duckenfield had discussed delaying the kick-off with his deputy Supt Bernard Murray to allow fans to enter, he had decided against it on that day.

Justice for the 96

Bereaved families and survivors had fought a tireless campaign seeking justice after the first coroner’s inquests into the Hillsborough disaster, completed in 1991, ruled all the deaths as accidental.

Families of the victims rejected the findings and fought to have the case reopened. In 1997, Lord Justice Stuart-Smith concluded that there was no justification for a new inquiry. Even private prosecution brought by the Hillsborough Families Support Group against Duckenfield and Murray failed in 2000.

By 2012, new inquests were quashed as the court proceeding had gone on to become the longest running in British legal history.

However, on April 16, 2016, the jury of the second inquests returned verdicts of unlawful killing in relation to each Hillsborough victim, vindicating all those who fought tirelessly for the truth for so long.

The jury concluded that police errors had caused a dangerous situation at the turnstiles and failures by commanding officers had also caused a crush on the terraces. There were also mistakes in the police control box over the order to open Leppings Lane end exit gates.

It also concluded that defects at the stadium contributed to the disaster and that there was an error in the safety certification of the Hillsborough Stadium.

Police also delayed declaring a major incident, leading to the emergency response including ambulance service also being delayed.

The condition of Hillsborough stadium prior to the disaster

Constructed in 1899 to house Sheffield Wednesday, HIllsborough stadium had been selected as a neutral venue to host the FA Cup semi-final rounds on five occasions in the 1980s.

Sheffield Wednesday was criticised for neglecting safety at the stadium following the tragedy, as this wasn’t the first time that fans had been crushed during a game.

An incident in the semi-final of the 1981 FA Cup between Tottenham Hotspur and Wolverhampton Wanderers at Hillsborough stadium saw 38 fans being crushed and injured after hundreds more spectators were permitted to enter the terrace.

Serious overcrowding was also observed at the 1987 quarter-final between Sheffield Wednesday and Coventry City and again between Coventry City and Leeds United.

Liverpool and Nottingham Forest even met in the semi-final at Hillsborough a year earlier in 1988, and fans reported of crushing at Leppings Lane. Liverpool had lodged a complaint before the match in 1989.

Although the 1981 incident prompted Sheffield Wednesday to alter the layout at the Leppings Lane to restrict sideways movement, several changes to the ground later on invalidated the stadium’s safety certificate.

The Leppings Lane did not hold a valid safety certificate at the time of the disaster.

The Taylor Report

The Hillsborough disaster inquiry overseen by Lord Justice Taylor between May 15 and June 29, 1989, published two reports – an interim report (Aug 1), which laid out the events of the day and immediate conclusions, and the final report on Jan 19, 1990, which outlined the general recommendations on football ground safety.

The Taylor Report had a deep impact on safety standards for stadiums in Great Britain. Perimeter and lateral fencing was removed and many top stadiums converted into an all-seated format. Purpose-built stadiums for the football league teams since the report require that they are all-seated.

The Football Spectators Act does not cover Scotland but the Scottish Premier League chose to make all-seater stadiums a requirement of league membership.

In England and Wales, all-seating is a requirement of the Premier League and the Football League for clubs who have been present in the Championship for more than three seasons. However, the government announced a relaxation of the regulation for the lower two English leagues (now known as League One and League Two).

Of late, several campaigns have attempted to get the government to relax the regulation and allow standing areas to return to the Premiership and Championship grounds.

Lest we forget

Liverpool, UK – May 17 2018: Hillsborough memorial for the 96 victims in Hillsborough disaster constructed 2015 situated in a specially-designed garden in front of the Anfield stadium Main Stand.

Several memorials have been erected in memory of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster, most notably at Anfield, featuring the names of the 96 who lost their lives.

There is also a memorial garden in Hillsborough Park with a “You’ll never walk alone” gateway.

Flames were added either side of the Liverpool FC crest in memory the victims.

In 2014, the English FA decided all FA Cup, Premier League, Football League and Football Conference matches played between April 11 and 14 would kick-off seven minutes later than originally scheduled with a six-minute delay and a one-minute silence tribute.