Hillsborough Disaster recalled-lest we forget
The jumble sale was just finishing in the church hall, so I wandered back to the Vicarage for a cuppa. Along the way, one of my parishioners stopped me and said ‘there’s been some trouble at the Wednesday ground, someone’s got killed’. I could hear the constant doppler effect sound of the ambulances on the top road which ran between Hillsborough at the bottom of my parish and the Northern General Hospital at the top. I put the television on in the lounge: ‘there’s been a problem at the match between Liverpool and Notts Forest. As many as six people may have been killed’. It was about 3.05, by 3.08 the projected numbers of dead being announced was 20; then thirty…then forty.
In common with a number of my clerical colleagues, I judged it was now time to make my way down to the hospital where the dead football fans and those who had been injured, and any attendant friends, family and well-wishers were being transported. I entered the hospital to complete chaos, a chaos which was being added to by the minute as new dead and dying were brought in. Everywhere was wailing, shouting and mayhem.
Over the next hour, some semblance of order descended as the injured were put in beds and the friends and relatives were rounded up in the staff canteen: the ‘holding area’. Being before the invention of mobile ‘phones, hundreds of confused, frightened and hysterical people were trying to get use of the four public ‘phones: many without proper change or unable to get telephone numbers. I managed to get hold of a hospital official and arrange for a number of office ‘phones to be released for free use and organised something of a waiting order to use them.
By 8 o’clock that night, the mortuary in Hillsborough’s gym had been set up, and a station set up for the grieving families in the local Medico-Legal Center. All that could be done at the hospital had been done so, together with others, I made my way to the ground for further instructions. The Archdeacon of Sheffield had done a brilliant job organising the clergy: we were each to meet one family coming from Merseyside and accompany them to the Medico-Legal Center and then to the ground to identify their loved ones. I met my ‘family’ back at the Hospital: I had been told and assured by officials that they would be informed of their son’s possible death before they arrived. I met them at the hospital step and introduced myself as the one designated to take them through ‘the process’. They had not been informed, and the mother sank to her knees in grief and horror: they had clung to the idea that they would find their boy alive all the way from Liverpool.
The family came with me in my small sporty car: cramped and grief-stricken. Not knowing the whereabouts of the Medico-Legal Center, I stopped to ask a passer-by: this being Saturday night in Sheffield, he was drunk and tried to force his way into the car. I drove off, eventually finding the place, and there we sat for three or so hours as endless shift after endless shift of families were rounded up, put onto coaches and driven to Hillsborough to find out, one way or another, what had happened to their loved one or ones. Interminable amounts of powdered tea in plastic cups later, it was our turn and we climbed onto the coach, which was entirely silent for the whole of the half hour drive.
Arriving at the ground, we were placed in a queue which led to the double doors of the gymnasium. At the end of the corridor were two notice boards with Polaroid photos of the deceased blu-tacked to them. As a person was identified, the photo was quickly snatched away by a police officer and taken so that the body could be prepared for identification. As we reached the notice boards, we were required to look at all the photos that remained until, at dreadful last, my ‘family’s’ son’s likeness was identified. For the second time, the mother sank to her knees desperately clawing at the photo and notice board as she fell. As we stood there, in this queue of horror, my family were dealing with their own, newly gouged grief, whilst having to listen to the anguished wailings of those who had identified the photos of their loved ones before us and the howls of those through the double doors who were presently identifying their next of kin. As we entered the gym, we saw first an ashen faced young police officer standing to attention at the side of every shrouded body. The young boy we saw was my family’s son. We were escorted to another room where the formalities were taken care of and I left my family then, in the care of social workers and others.
I got home early in the morning and went up to the bedroom with the Spring sunlight slanting through the drawn curtains. My wife got out of bed and wrapped her arms around me as I wept for the first time that night, and thought of my own two young football fan sons lying alive and asleep in the next room.
About three weeks later, my ‘family’ requested that I meet them at Hillsborough and walk around the pitch with them. I did so, and the father, attempting cheeriness, ribbed me about the lack of silverware in the Owl’s trophy cabinet. Then we walked on to ‘West Lower’ where the tragedy happened, and there were the stout, tubular steel stanchions and barriers, bent like paper clips wires into crazy shapes and angles: contorted in the crush by frail human bodies. I have never seen ‘my family’ since, but there is never a home match goes by at Hillsborough that I do not look across from my seat on the Kop, with my vivacious and alive boys at my side, and remember the night when, for those terribly afflicted Hillsborough Disaster families, my football club’s ground: my ‘theatre of dreams’ ,became for them,and for us all, a cauldron of nightmares.
There are many issues that arise out of the Disaster: the position of the Police; the fenced in football ground with standing provision only; the lack of a disaster policy and strategy; the disgraceful behaviour of some of the media and the genuine kindness of the local people of Hillsborough who helped the victims on the night, and took many into their homes. But one issue that remains is that 96 innocent people, who had arrived early at the ground and sober, died at a football match.
May they rest in peace and rise in glory: and may the justice their families call for, be theirs.