On April 15 1989, a warm, sunny, spring afternoon, Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough stadium should have played host to one of the most eagerly anticipated games of the season; instead it would be the scene of the worst sporting disaster in British history which would eventually claim the lives of 96 football supporters.
It was supposed to be a clash between two of the country’s best teams at the time as Liverpool and Nottingham Forest met in an FA Cup semi-final, but what should have been a dream tie quickly turned into a nightmare.
The tragedy developed as Liverpool fans tried to gain access to the western Leppings Lane section of the ground, the smaller of two ends which had been allocated to them while Forest had the bigger Kop end to the east and as kick off approached it became obvious that not all would gain access before the game’s 3pm kick-off.
Due to segregation concerns many of the entrances that day were closed meaning that nearly 25,000 Liverpool fans were expected to access the ground through just seven turnstiles on one side of the stadium and unsurprisingly a bottleneck was created causing chaos and concern in the surrounding area.
A police officer outside the ground, who was aware of what was going on, sent a request to the control room that the game be delayed to allow supporters extra time to get into the ground, as it had been two years before when the two sides met at the same ground, but this time no such action was taken.
It was at this point that one of the most fateful decisions in a catalogue of terrible errors was made, ultimately leading to death and injury on an unimaginable scale as Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, the police commander in charge of the match, ordered an exit gate to be opened, allowing hundreds of trapped supporters into the already crowded terraces.
Mr Duckenfield would later claim that fans had forced open the exit gate to enter the ground, a lie he would later claim at the inquest into the deaths in 2015 that he would regret “to his dying day."
By 2.59pm supporters on the Leppings Lane terrace began to climb out of the pens behind the goal onto the pitch or into the seats above, desperate to avoid the overwhelming crush that was engulfing them, while things were only made worse when Liverpool's’ Peter Beardsley hit the crossbar at the far end. A surge in the already overcrowded central pen caused a metal barrier to give way, sending fans tumbling on top of each other.
The game was eventually stopped at six minutes past three as referee Ray Lewis, along with many of the players on the pitch, became aware that something terrible was unfolding behind them as fans just yards away desperately tried to escape the mass of bodies around them, but for many it was too late.
“In the early minutes of the game, I could still see people’s faces crushed against the fence.” Liverpool ‘keeper Bruce Grobbelaar later revealed. “Three times they were screaming at me to try and get something done. I could see there was a problem.”
Seemingly overwhelmed and totally unprepared for what they were witnessing many of those whose job it was to protect the fans at the match that day appeared unable or unwilling to help, with many police officers under the impression that they were dealing with crowd trouble rather than a human tragedy.
Many of the fans who had escaped the horror took it upon themselves to assist those less fortunate as others tore down advertising hoardings to use as make-shift stretchers for the injured due to the desperate lack of facilities available while a single ambulance eventually arrived on to the pitch.
Though the match was not broadcast live on television the events were eventually relayed to the nation via BBC’s Grandstand programme while Peter Jones, covering the game for BBC Radio described the horror in front of him to those listening around the country and the world.
As a result word of the tragedy soon spread to football grounds around the country and the death toll grew by the hour. First five, then twenty five, then 40.. 50 until, by the end of the day, some 94 people were known to have been killed with two more ultimately to die in hospital some time later and hundreds injured.
In the days and weeks following the disaster officers from South Yorkshire Police would accuse Liverpool fans of causing the deaths themselves, insinuating they were drunk, had arrived at the ground late, were violent and generally uncooperative with those in authority while endangering the lives of those around them.
Meanwhile, the country’s biggest selling newspaper, The Sun, reiterated these unproven claims with a front page headline entitled: “The Truth,” which accused Liverpool fans of urinating on the dead, stealing from bodies and abusing police officers who were attending to the injured and dying.
In the months and years that followed, survivors, along with fellow fans, friends and relatives of those killed and injured embarked on a long and agonising struggle to unearth the real causes of what had happened that dreadful day while also trying to clear the name of those who had been tarnished by the horrific and false accusations.
At the original inquest into the disaster in 1991 the fans’ deaths were ruled accidental but following the 2012 Hillsborough Independent Panel report, which concluded that a major cover-up had taken place in an effort by police and others to avoid the blame for what happened; those verdicts were quashed.
And on April 26, 2016, following a fresh inquest and more than two years of proceedings, a jury of six women and three men concluded that each of the 96 supporters who lost their lives had been unlawfully killed while also stating that fans had played no part in causing the tragedy.
The landmark verdicts prompted emotional scenes inside and outside the courtroom, from those who had fought for justice on behalf of their friends and loved ones across three decades as they listened to words many probably thought they would never hear.
All these years on we now have a clearer picture of what happened on that awful day and the families of those killed, along with the many hundreds who were affected by the events of that dreadful day, are at least a little closer to the truth and justice they have fought so long and hard to achieve.
Even so, those events will of course live forever in the memories of those who were there that day and the families of all 96 victims, while also being marked by football fans everywhere, regardless of the team they support and the colours they wear, due to the sheer horror and unimaginable suffering that took place on April 15, 1989.
This article was first posted on April 15, 2018.