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  • Peter McGuire

What Really Happened at Hillsborough?

Part 7 in a series on human stampedes and crushes.

Read part 6

That’s right, it’s another month of crushes. This time we’re looking at building evacuations, Hillsborough, and the recent Astroworld disaster. I'm Peter McGuire and this is my Unlikely Explanation.

We are now ready to approach Hillsborough, possibly the most discussed human crush incident in recent history.

This is the case that first got me interested in human stampedes. This was about five years ago, when I was working in a very boring office, trying to find things to inform my fiction. I was writing a novel that I never finished about an ancient society and needed an apparently freak disaster that could be blamed on either the people or the government equally. A human crush became the answer and the inciting incident for the story. As I researched it and fires, I furiously IMed lots of facts to my best friend. Entertaining Patrick with these shocking stories eventually led me to write longer history pieces for the general audience and eventually start this podcast.

In some ways, I feel the need to apologize for doing another month of human crushes because the subject is so dark and brutal, but I am fascinated by the peculiarities of each case. It’s the fascination of watching a train wreck in slow motion. We can get into and analyze elements of these disasters that no one experiencing them is fully aware of. In fact, a lack of information communication seems to be at the root of all crushes. If everyone knew to just step back, pressure can often be relieved at the front. Unfortunately, the people creating the pressure often have no clue that a crush is happening.

Each incident seems to conjure itself up in a moment like a lightning strike, yet they are completely preventable with enough planning and fast reaction time. All of us end up in crowds on a regular basis (or at least we did before covid) at events similar to Hillsborough, big sporting events, political rallies, large concerts. Even attending a play can be deadly, as we will see shortly. Crushes are especially interesting to research because they play out in a way that’s very different from what the people in them experience or what is popularly reported about them. Hillsborough is an excellent case for understanding what really happens in a crush and how journalism gets it wrong. As in the Russian cases, politics played a significant role.

Source: Time Magazine

One reason this case is so discussed is that it has remained in the news in the UK for decades and generated enormous amounts of court paperwork over the years of inquests and reappraisals. It became an important case in England as a flurry of reporting in the aftermath blamed the crush on football hooliganism, and specifically the actions of the victims. Despite a concerted police cover-up and widespread hostile reporting, a dedicated group of survivors and family members of victims persisted year after year in denying the rumors and demanding the truth. Although they have not achieved court justice—no one responsible has been punished in any meaningful way—they have received admissions and apologies for the cover-up in recent years from police and reporters.

You see, for many years the deaths were blamed on the unruliness and drunkenness of the crowd. Over the 70s and 80s, soccer matches, particularly in England, were marked by shocking violence by fans. This fit into a broader narrative, during a long span of conservative electoral success, that society was coming apart at the edges and the U.K. needed to return to disciplinarianism to cure it. In both the U.S. and the U.K., criminal codes were unified, sentences increased, appeals reduced, and incarceration massively expanded.

It doesn’t appear that the severity or frequency of football-related violence actually rose during this time period

Liverpool fans had a particularly bad reputation both for their past actions and due to classism. The cities in the north of England were decaying industrial centers that faced mass unemployment as manufacturing jobs moved overseas. Added to this real social peril, there is intense regional stigmatization in England, and northerners are generally considered less educated and more barbaric than their southern counterparts. For Americans, you might imagine a cross between attitudes towards Detroit and the South. Their reputation as a class was to be dumb, violent, and unruly.

It’s no accident that this strip of the country resolutely supported Labor through the Thatcher years when conservatives held twice as many seats as Labor. To this day, northern, working-class voters are generally considered a core base for the Labor party.

From this prejudice, a clear narrative appeared as “football hooliganism” found its name. Although sports events since time immemorial have been accompanied by violence and bad behavior on the part of fans (chariot team fans almost toppled Emperor Justinian I in 532), the term “hooliganism” came into use in the 60s and by the 80s had gained political and moral significance. The narrative was clear: when football matches happened, Britans felt free to loose their wildest, most violent, basest inhibitions. These mobs were full of uneducated drunks, looking for meaning in beating up opposing fans and destroying property.

It doesn’t appear that the severity or frequency of football-related violence actually rose during this time period, but it was reported on much more prominently. It was a perfect moral panic to fit the conservative narrative.

That said, violence around sports games is a real problem. Outreach campaigns in recent years have highlighted that the worst of the violence occurs at home. Domestic violence surges before and after football matches.

The worst of the football-related violence occurs at home

Football matches increasingly saw pitch invasions in the 80s, where a fan or many fans would run out onto the field to disrupt the match or even attack the opposing team (or their fans). These clashes were violent and difficult to break up, and stadiums built tall, strong fences around supporters’ sections to prevent fans from escaping. The crush danger of these fences was recognized at the time and recommendations and regulations required exit gates to be manned and openable from the inside. This policy was informed by fire danger regulations, which are actually crush-prevention regulations, as we will see later.

Amongst football rioters, Liverpool had an especially bad reputation, in large part due to the Heysel Stadium disaster. In 1985, Liverpool fans in Brussels breached a police line and invaded a section of rival supporters. The section, containing many families with young children, fled to the opposite wall, which collapsed, killing 39. In the end, 14 Liverpool fans were found guilty of manslaughter and all English football clubs were banned from professional European football for 5 years (Liverpool for 6).

With all this in mind, we arrive in Sheffield on a beautiful afternoon, April 15th, 1989. Liverpool FC and Nottingham Forest FC met for a semi-final match. Observers mention that it was a beautiful afternoon because supporters were in no hurry to enter the stadium early. As kickoff at 3 pm approached, the large crowd tried to enter the stadium very quickly.

The approach to Hillsborough Stadium for the west stands, the side Liverpool fans were assigned, squeezes between a river and a block of buildings. Despite the expectation for a high turnout, as had happened at Hillsborough in previous years, police did nothing to direct the traffic upstream of the approach to the turnstile area. Police, some on horses, were stationed in the approach to the turnstiles and quickly found themselves completely overwhelmed.

Side note, I’m always amazed that police horses can deal with hundreds of people in their faces without kicking anyone.

By 2:45 a dangerous situation had developed outside of the stadium. People were being crushed against the turnstiles. Inside the stadium, plenty of standing room remained. A constable outside radioed that the match should be delayed as it had been two years earlier to relieve crowd pressure. The request was denied. At this point, the superintendent in charge of the event, David Duckenfield, made a life-altering decision. He ordered the large exit gates opened to relieve crowd pressure.

Duckenfield had recently been assigned to the position, replacing Brian L. Mole, who had extensive experience with large events but had recently been reassigned following the hazing of a junior officer. Duckenfield had risen in the ranks thanks to his reputation as a disciplinarian, just what the department needed to restore confidence after a scandal. His motivation on April 15th seems clear: to protect the sanctity of the match and prevent any funny business. He had toured the common trouble spots through the morning, but for the last hour had occupied a control room overlooking the field. His attention was focused on the field and he did not recognize the crush for several minutes after it began. When the crush became apparent and the game was ended, he claimed that crowds had forced open the gates and large numbers of unticketed fans had rushed in. These would prove to be enduring lies.

The crowd now poured through the large gates. The standing area at Hillsborough had been broken into 4 pens by 7-foot-tall, crowd-containing fences. The fence was specifically designed to contain crowds with reinforced steel and a foot of negative incline at the top. People already in the central pens found themselves pushed against these fences and the fences weren’t budging.

In previous large matches, when the central two pens were full, the gate that led to those pens would be closed and latecomers directed to the two pens on either side. Photos show these side areas as still fairly empty as people died from the crush nearby. On this day, no officials stood at the entrances to the pens as required by the football association and the tunnel to the central pens was never closed. I’ve never seen an answer as to why these procedures weren’t in place. Presumably, Duckenfield didn’t know about them or didn’t consider them necessary.

The game began as scheduled at 3. Liverpool’s goalkeeper reported hearing the crush victims begging him for help as the match began. At 3:04, Liverpool almost scored a goal and the crowd, now pouring in through the outer gate, pushed forward to see. This intensified an already dire situation and people began to faint while others began to climb for their lives. A minute later, at 3:05, referees stopped the game and word spread amongst officials to stop preventing victims from escaping the pens. A small gate between one of the pens and the field was forced open. Numerous other holes were made by sheer pressure and human strength ripping apart the fence. Fans saved many victims by sitting on top of the fence to help lift people over. Despite these efforts, somewhere around 55 people were already dead or gravely injured.

Duckenfield, in the control tower, initially interpreted the climbers as a pitch invasion. When he received word that a deadly crush was in progress, he told FA officials his story that Liverpool fans had forced open the gate he’d ordered opened and that unticketed fans had caused the crush. While a disorganized and uncoordinated rescue ensued, Duckenfield ordered that police stay back and allow fans to act as first responders, in part to diffuse their anger towards the police who had caused the crush. He never, at any point, issued an order to stop the flow of people into the pens.

Newspapers widely reported the police’s narrative

As I have mentioned several times, the systemic failures that cause crushes also lead to slow response times. This is an exemplar of that effect. No commands were given for whether victims would be triaged on the field or in the casualty reception point police had set up. As more and more ambulances arrived, most crews stayed with their vehicles, unaware that first aid was needed on the field or at the reception point. Fans remained the most proactive rescue responders and first aid providers, but they had no direction and were unqualified to properly triage. Many of the paramedics who did venture down to the field didn’t bring their equipment and could only provide the most basic first aid, hardly better than the fans. No concerted effort was made to remove victims from the field and victims, fans, first responders, and police became a tangle of confusion. They ultimately transported 149 of the 860 casualties to hospitals, many carried out on makeshift stretchers made of billboards by other fans. Later investigations found that at least 41 of the deaths could have been prevented with an adequate response. Even a simple instruction to lay victims in the rescue position instead of on their backs would have saved lives.

Police immediately went into damage control. They interviewed family members of the dead, focusing particularly on how much alcohol they’d had and whether they had tickets. Post-mortem blood tests on the Hillsborough Stadium victims did not show elevated levels of drugs and alcohol, a fact that police did not disclose. They photographed the grounds after the crush, paying particular attention to empty drinks cans. Videos from the day show Liverpool fans waving their tickets at cameras. Little did they know, allegations of being unticketed would be the least of the slander thrown at them.

A police spokesman admitted the night of the incident that police, not fans, had opened the gates. Despite this, newspapers widely reported the police’s narrative that their decisions had made no impact on the disaster. Margret Thatcher visited the site the morning after the disaster but did not make comments to the press. Although she made few comments on the disaster itself, her government made it clear that it was the drunken fans who were responsible, not the police. Strong support of police was a cornerstone of the Conservative law-and-order policy.

She opened an investigation into the incident, the Taylor Inquiry. Police continued to report that the crowd was drunk and disorderly despite evidence to the contrary, admitted no fault, created false reports (one that the crowd was putting out their cigarettes on police horses), and omitted all references to the standard practice of closing the tunnel to the middle pens and requests from lower-level officers to delay the kick off. Although the officers involved have since admitted to lying to this investigation and falsifying evidence, in 2021, courts found that they had not broken any law because this investigation was not “statutory”.

Despite the police narrative and their extensive misreporting, the Taylor Report found that failure of police control was the main cause of the disaster. It found that their failure to close the central pens led directly to the deaths. It also specifically exonerated the crowd of being drunk and unticketed. Despite these damning findings, the Taylor Report opened few doors to justice and did little to dampen Conservative zeal for blaming victims.

A key element of the police coverup was forestalling any investigation into the disaster response. The original coroner inquest found that the crush was over by 3:15. At that point, everyone was either dead or mortally injured. This stopped the Taylor report from detailing the police response that was more focused on assigning blame than saving lives. Significant evidence has since come out suggesting that several victims were still alive after 3:15 and could still be saved. This hearing also found all the deaths to be accidental. The timeline ending at 3:15 and the deaths being judged accidental were two of the biggest obstacles to victims’ justice because they fixed the “facts” of the case against their claims that police had caused the disaster.

In 2012, new inquests were opened under Home Secretary Theresa May. Ultimately, only one death was ruled to have occurred before 3:15.

At the time, the government’s response to the Taylor Report was hostile. Thatcher wrote to an aide who praised the report, “What do we mean by ‘welcoming the broad thrust of the report’? The broad thrust is devastating criticism of the police. Is that for us to welcome?” Conservatives rejected, downplayed, and ignored most of the findings of the Taylor Report.

Conservative newspapers followed suit and relied instead on unsourced eyewitness accounts and police falsifications. Peter McKay in the Evening Standard wrote that the "catastrophe was caused first and foremost by violent enthusiasm for soccer and in this case the tribal passions of Liverpool supporters [who] literally killed themselves and others to be at the game.” The Liverpool Daily Post wrote that “Scouse killed Scouse for no better reason than 22 men were kicking a ball.” (Scouse is a term that means someone from Liverpool. I prefer the term Liverpudlian but to each their own.)

The Rupert-Murdoch-owned newspaper, The Sun, published unsubstantiated rumors wildly. They accused Liverpool fans of everything from stealing from the dead and dying to peeing on the rescuers. Many articles wrongly described the event as a “pitch invasion gone wrong.” The claim that fans were peeing on police and the dead, may have arisen from the incontinence that accompanies death.

The editor of the Sun at the time, Kelvin MacKenzie, has repeatedly issued apologies for the stories that consistently pass the buck. He claims to have been misled by police and other officials as much as anyone else. He has never taken responsibility for the incredible viscousness of his attacks and the national distrust it engendered. The sad irony was that these fans were, in reality, the most effective and—for many victims—the only rescue responders.

These views, a false theory concocted by a real police conspiracy, remained mainstream—if not official—party stances for Conservative politicians. Thatcher’s former press secretary wrote to a Liverpool fan in 1996, “After all, who if not the tanked up yobs who turned up late determined to get into the ground caused the disaster? To blame the police, even though they may have made mistakes, is contemptible.” He also reminds the letter-writer that “most reasonable people outside of Merseyside recognize the truth of what I say.”

Merseyside, the Liverpool area, remained strong Labor supporters through Thatcher’s hayday and formed the core of support in 1997 when Labor won 146 seats in one of the biggest electoral landslides in British history. For context, 330 seats are needed for a majority and Labor won 418. This election was the crowning achievement of Tony Blair’s rise to popularity with an intensely centrist platform that rejected many of Labor’s traditional socialist stances. Hillsborough victims had high hopes for a new investigation.

True to their promises, the Labor government opened a new investigation under Lord Justice Stewart-Smith. While listening to eyewitness accounts in Liverpool, Stewart-Smith asked a bereaved father, “Have you got a few of your people or are they like the Liverpool fans, turn up at the last minute.” Families of victims rightly took this as a bad sign. He found that there was no reason to reinvestigate the deaths, despite the fact that witness and police statements had since been altered. He reinforced that all deaths had happened before 3:15, exonerating police response. The deaths remained accidental. Families of victims spoke out with their disappointment and continued advocating for justice. The state, the press, and much of the British public carried on blaming the victims. By now, the mad rush of the late Liverpool fans had become a punchline in British comedies.

“The patronising disposition of unaccountable power” details the derision and indifference of successive governments towards victims

In 2009, MPs from Merseyside convinced the Home Secretary to create a panel for disclosing all documents related to the disaster. It published its findings under the conservative Cameron government, in 2012, that "up to 41" of the 96 who had died up to that date, might have survived had the emergency services' reactions and coordination been better. It also detailed a comprehensive police conspiracy that hid all evidence that incriminated their planning and response. It also pointed to the 3:15 time of death as implausible and a barrier to justice.

David Cameron released these findings and apologized on behalf of the government. The Labor leader, Ed Milibrand apologized on behalf of the opposition. Ths report triggered a new coroner’s hearing, which fixed the cause of death as unlawful killings and all but one of the time of deaths to after 3:15. A subsequent police investigation by an independent body in the British government led to resignations of police officers but no successful convictions. In 2019, David Duckenfield was found not guilty of 95 counts of gross negligence manslaughter.

The report commissioned by then Home Secretary Theresa May, released in 2017, is entitled “The patronising disposition of unaccountable power” and details the derision and indifference of successive governments towards victims. It highlights how easy it is for those in power to brush off decisions that change the lives of others. May continues to campaign for justice for Hillsborough victims and structural change to police investigation.

David Duckenfield

The coverup by police and gradual exposure by dedicated victims, family members, and their advocates stands as a landmark in British justice. Despite the fact that the causes of the disaster and the details of the appalling coverup are completely public now, there have been no criminal convictions related to Hillsborough. As is often the case, public statements of apology have come far too late, and have been accompanied by no structural or legal change. Instead, we are assured that these were corrupt tactics of corrupt men in a bygone era, as police departments learn to harbor their prejudices more privately and avoid structural change.

I want to end this section by considering the victims. Not every victim died in 1989. In addition to the 94 deaths on or near the field, 766 people suffered non-fatal injuries. That number doesn’t include the many attendees and good samaritans who suffered psychological fallout. Research finds that while PTSD is a common reaction to crushes, the most common psychological injury is generalized anxiety. People who witness and experience crushes carry the trauma, often for life.

Gary Burns was 17 when he survived the Hillsborough crush. One way his psychological trauma manifested was through sense memory, his sense of smell. He recalled, “it was the aroma in the air that I had never smelt before or since. I could smell vomit, urine, etc. but this was something unknown. It smelt similar to other things but at the same time smelt nothing like them. It filled your nostrils, I could taste it, I tried to swallow to get rid of the taste but this was impossible because there was no moisture inside my mouth.

“I used to wake up in the middle of the night and I could smell that aroma. I can only describe it as the smell of fear, a pungent substance that is produced deep down from inside the human body and filled the air around me.”

The death toll of Hillsborough continues to rise. Tony Bland was 18 when he suffered severe brain damage in the disaster. He lived on life support and became a controversial figure in 1992 when courts allowed doctors to withdraw treatment. Because British law did not allow treatment to be withdrawn but allowed families to refuse additional treatment, the only way for families of coma patients who have no possibility of recovery to allow their loved ones to die was to allow an opportunistic secondary infection to kill them without treatment, a prolonged and horrific way to die. Bland’s was the first case where courts allowed treatment to be withdrawn. CT scans presented to the court showed more “space than substance” in his brain outside of the brainstem. Bland died a few months later, on March 3rd, 1993. The coroner recorded his death as accidental despite the insistence of the family that it be unlawful killing by Duckfield and Conservative activists’ insistence that it be recorded as an unlawful killing by the doctor who withdrew treatment. This landmark “death with dignity” case has stood despite various challenges in the last 3 decades. Tony Bland’s death was ruled an unlawful killing in 2016 with the rest of the victims and Duckenfield was never tried for his death because it happened more than a year and a day after the crush.

Andrew Devine

In July 2021, the 97th recorded Hillsborough death occurred. Andrew Devine was 22 when he went into a coma in the Hillsborough pens. 15 years later, in 1994, he regained some level of attentiveness and was reportedly able to respond to yes or no questions with touch-sensitive buzzers, but his condition did not continue to improve. He remained a beloved family member, appearing in his wheelchair at all their events including many Liverpool matches. He died at age 55, 32 years after the disaster. His death was ruled the 97th unlawful killing from Hillsborough. Duckenfield will not be prosecuted for his death.

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