LONDON — It was Europe’s most deadly sporting disaster since a stand collapsed at the Circus Maximus in 140AD.
A horrific crush at a soccer match inside Hillsborough stadium in 1989 killed 96 Liverpool fans. Among them were 37 teenagers. More than 50 children lost a parent.
Almost all of those who died suffered compression asphyxia after police officers took the calamitous decision to throw open a gate to the stadium, forcing thousands of fans into an area that was sealed off by high steel fences.
A few minutes after the devastating crush had forced the last breaths from dozens of young bodies, Sheffield police officers started covering up their fatal mistakes with a series of callous lies apparently designed to shift the blame to the victims.
The BBC was informed that fans without tickets had smashed open the gate causing the crush while the bodies were still being pulled out of the tangle.
Those lies were embellished over the following days with sickening fabrications published by The Sun that alleged drunken Liverpool fans were looting corpses, urinating on the officials, and deliberately stopping the emergency services from saving lives.
Almost 30 years later, a jury finally ruled on Tuesday that it was the police who were responsible for the “unlawful deaths”—not the fans.
The Crown Prosecution Service will now decide whether to bring criminal charges against the retired officers whose mistakes led to the deaths of 96 people.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had chosen not to welcome similar, but less explosive, findings in a report in 1991, allowing those responsible to evade justice and keep their jobs.
Seven years after the disaster, Sir Bernard Ingham, Thatcher’s loyal former spokesman, wrote to the friend of a victim who was still seeking justice and told him to get over it. “After all, who if not the tanked up yobs… caused the disaster?” he wrote.
In late ’80s Britain, which was scarred by rioting, police brutality and hooliganism, football fans were easy scapegoats. It’s no surprise that the government sided with the South Yorkshire Police—the same force that brutally put down a miners’ strike at the Battle of Orgreave a few years earlier.
These pervasive myths about the victims survived into the 21st century.
He was forced to apologize after claiming there was “no excuse for Liverpool’s failure to acknowledge, even to this day, the part played in the disaster by drunken fans at the back of the crowd who mindlessly tried to fight their way into the ground.”
Johnson’s poisonous claims were part of a larger attack on Liverpudlians, who he claimed have a “deeply unattractive psyche” which leads them to “wallow” in misery.
It was certainly true that the city of Liverpool refused to move on. An enthusiastically enforced boycott against The Sun newspaper for printing the false allegations against fans remains in place 27 years later.
It was that refusal to give up and the sheer determination to clear the names of the 24,000 Liverpool fans who attended that FA Cup semifinal that forced the government to hold the current inquest. After two years—the longest jury case in British history—they have finally won justice for the fallen.
After the verdicts, around 40 members of the victims’ families held back tears and stood together outside the inquest to sing the Liverpool anthem You’ll Never Walk Alone.
It took the best part of three decades but former police chief David Duckenfield admitted for the first time during the inquest that he had been wrong to order police to open a gate to the stadium without ensuring there was a safe way for them to reach the terraces.
“I think it’s fair to say that it is arguably one of the biggest regrets of my life, that I did not foresee where fans would go when they came in through the gates,” he said.
At the age of 71, he also admitted publicly to telling a “terrible lie” about the victims. Every body—even that of a 10-year-old child was tested for alcohol as the desperate officers tried to escape the blame.
“Everybody knew the truth, the fans and police knew the truth that we’d opened the gates,” he finally admitted.
Another officer admitted that South Yorkshire Police had been “playing Russian roulette” with thousands of lives.
Police evidence was tampered with during the previous inquiry, but finally some of the officers admitted enough of their failings for the jury to find that the fans were “unlawfully killed” after police officers had breached their duty of care due to “gross negligence.”
Trevor Hicks, who lost his daughters Sarah and Vicki at Hillsborough, said this verdict had been possible because the campaigners had worked so hard.
“We’ve known all along what happened. Obviously it’s took us 20-odd years to get here,” he said.
The Guardian reported that witnesses on April 15, 1989, saw Hicks out on the pitch running between his teenage girls who were being treated for their terrible injuries, shouting: “Not both of them: they’re all I’ve got.”
Twenty-seven years later, he was calm after the inquest. “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” he said. “If anyone is a winner today, it’s society at large in that, no matter who you are, how big you are, or where you are in your organization, the public will come after you if you do anything wrong.”
Margaret Aspinall, whose son James was 18 when he was crushed to death at the football match, was one of those who led the campaign for justice.
“I think we have changed a part of history now,” she said. “Let’s be honest about this—people were against us. We had the media against us, as well as the establishment. Everything was against us. The only people that weren’t against us was our own city. That’s why I am so grateful to my city and so proud of my city. They always believed in us.”
John Aldridge was one of the players on the pitch as the disaster unfolded. “Fantastic to see the reaction of the families outside the court!” he wrote on Twitter. “Very emotional as well. The truth is out AT LAST. Take note all the doubters!!”
It seemed not everyone was taking note, however. Thatcher is dead now, but her righthand man, Ingham, is still alive and living in South London. Approached by the Daily Mirror after the verdict came in, he refused to apologize. “I have nothing to say,” he told the reporter.