Posted on Jul 22, 2021 79
On April 15, 1989, one of the most horrific tragedies in the history of English soccer occurred. 94 Liverpool fans were crushed to death at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough Stadium during the FA Cup semi-final match against Nottingham Forest. Two more victims died later.
The terrible events that took place at Hillsborough resulted from a series of gross mistakes made by unprofessionally acting police officers who could not cope with the crowd of thoroughly drunk fans. The match was due to start at 3pm, and the organizers, given the poor capacity of the stadium turnstiles, asked fans of the teams to come earlier. However, their request was not heard. When the game was ten minutes away, along with fans who had tickets in hand, about four thousand people who wanted to watch soccer for free, pulled up to the arena.
As a result, an unprecedented number of people crowded in front of the turnstiles, stowaways were turned back, they prevented others from passing through control. The match had already started, and there were many empty seats in the stand reserved for Liverpool fans. People outside the stadium chanted “We want to go to the soccer game!” and pushed against those in front of them. The first signs of a stampede appeared. That’s when one of the senior police officers made a fateful decision. “Does everyone have tickets? - he asked. - Get them up!”. When the fans complied with his demand, he, figuring there were few stowaways in the general mass, ordered his subordinates to open the gates and let everyone in without inspection.
At that moment, the referee blew his whistle. The fans outside rushed into the center section of the stands and pressed those who had long been seated there against the bars that separated the spectators from the field. The police did not react immediately: they thought the fans had taken their seats closer to the lawn. The game continued, and people in the stands were dying of suffocation. Only in the sixth minute, having suspected something amiss, the law-enforcers gave the referee the command to stop the match.
If only that had been the end of it! Alas, there were still a lot of fans outside the stadium who, unaware of what was going on up front, made the situation worse with their aggressive behavior. In addition, all the seats in the stands were standing and the tickets, respectively, were admission tickets. So from the police point of view, the situation looked absurd. They refused to understand how there could be pressure on the stands, which were full of free space on the sides, in the area of the corner flags. But the point was that everyone was trying to squeeze into the center section, which was more convenient for watching the game. Given that the mass of stowaways significantly exceeded the allowed number of fans, those who came early got trapped.
Stewards, who should have controlled the influx of people and redirected the fans to other sectors, as they were full, could have defused the situation. However, this was not done. Why not? The question remained unanswered. Then the stewards claimed they were doing their job, but the drunken crowd wouldn’t listen to them. The fans claimed they did not see anyone and went where they thought they should. After stopping the match, still not understanding what was happening, the police made a second mistake. They interpreted the fans’ attempts to climb the bars to save their own lives as an organized breach of the field and used their batons to drive the fans back. The guards still didn’t understand how a stampede could occur in a stand that was not completely full. After a few minutes, some of the regular police officers near the epicenter realized what was going on and helped the fans. But the officers, who were at least fifty meters away, gave a third erroneous command: to stand back from the bars, to take up defensive positions and not to let anyone through. They still thought that the Liverpool fans were only going onto the pitch in order to run to the opposite stand and have a fight with the Nottingham Forest fans!
An already critical situation was exacerbated by the lack of sufficient medical personnel and stretchers in the stadium. The fans, desperate for help, smashed up billboards, put their injured supporters on them and tried to at least drag them to the middle of the pitch, while police officers lined up to beat the fans with batons. 94 fans died right in the stadium: the youngest of them was ten years old. Another 766 were wounded, about three hundred of them taken to the hospital. Four days later, the mournful list was enriched by one more death, and in March 1993, Hillsborough took its last victim: Tony Bland, who had been in and out of a coma the whole time, died...
A state-level investigation into the tragedy found no culprits. The police justified themselves because if they had not allowed people into the stands, there would have been many more victims at the entrance to the stadium. In addition, many of them had given false testimony, trying to protect each other. The trial lasted several years, until the main defendant, the officer who had given the order to open the gates, was exonerated for health reasons. But the tragedy might not have happened at all if the police, seeing that they did not have time to allow the fans into the stadium, had only asked for a delay in the match's start...
However, the British authorities have learned some fundamental lessons from the Hillsborough events. First, the English government obliged the clubs to abandon the so-called terraces, equip their stadiums with seats and sell tickets only with the sign of rows and seats. And second, it was removed from the fences separating the stands from the pitch, because under certain circumstances they posed a threat to the lives of fans.
Only 23 years later, on 12 September 2012, the report of the independent commission of inquiry into the Hillsborough Stadium tragedy, which resulted in 96 deaths, was published. And the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, James Cameron, apologized on behalf of the government to the families of the victims.