James Lawton: I was a witness to the needless death of 96 football fans. The memory still sickens me
On the 20th anniversary of tragedy at Hillsborough, The Independent's chief sports writer explains why the police have a case to answer
Wednesday, 15 April 2009
It never goes away. The waste of it, the dereliction of duty, the callousness implicit in the cheap branding of innocent people who died so unnecessarily and the cover-up which started when Mrs Thatcher brought flowers the following morning – and bought the stories so carefully edited by the men who had failed so abjectly to protect 96 lives.
The deepest horror, 20 years on, is still the one that came, with sickening clarity even for someone untrained in policing or public safety, before a single life was lost.
You had only to stand outside the crush of the Leppings Lane end – as I did 20 minutes or so before the start of the game – to know that so many lives were in terrible danger and that, inevitably, some would be lost.
Maybe, worst of all, was the sense that nobody seemed to care. A group of policemen and women, without deployment, stood in a circle, talking among themselves.
It was surreal, a nightmare from which there could be no awakening. A mounted policeman tried to wheel, unsuccessfully, in space that was being filled more tightly with every second as more people were pressed down on the gate, and the flash of panic across his face was, you knew the moment you saw it, something you would never forget. It told you that in that hellish side of a football ground no one's safety could be guaranteed.
There was no control, no leadership, no apparent awareness of the odds rising so swiftly, so inexorably, against the possibility of averting a tragedy.
Now, after all the research and irrefutable evidence and documentation, the public knows, if they care to, the anatomy of this tragedy.
They know of the failures of the police, their deceits, their refusal to officially acknowledge any direct responsibility for what happened, and the lack of success in the private prosecution of the commander who was allowed to retire, without the disciplinary action recommended by the official Taylor report, on grounds of ill-health and on a full pension – shortly before taking a job as secretary of his local golf club.
But if such facts can still engender rage, if the refusal of home secretaries and police authorities to say, yes, there was a terrible negligence, and we need to say sorry to all those who lost loved ones, can only be seen as shockingly insensitive cruelties, there is also a more personal angst for anyone who happened to be there.
If you knew it was going to happen, how could you simply take the advice of the policewoman and walk to the other side of the ground, where the Nottingham Forest fans had not been herded into dangerously overcrowded places, then walk into the press box and sit next to a colleague and point to the Leppings Lane end and say, "People are going to die over there"?
No, you were as powerless as so many of the leaderless policemen and the dedicated ambulance drivers who, before it was too late, were denied access to the football pitch that had become a killing field.
But maybe you could have screamed to the heavens against this horror created by insufficient care and professionalism.
Instead, you tried to do your job as a reporter. You went down on to the field and saw the pathetic attempts to make stretchers of advertising hoardings. You said to yourself that you could indeed do what was urged upon you by one tear-stained man... "tell the world what really happened... everyone who has died here deserves that".
Down the years you tried to be faithful to that command. You drove to Liverpool to give evidence to the West Midlands Police who were conducting an "independent" inquiry.
You went into the witness box in Leeds Crown Court in the private prosecution but you felt useless then because all you could really say was that you knew it was going to happen, and if you knew why didn't the police know, and why didn't they react professionally.
Why were they so inert? Why were stories planted in The Sun that drunken fans robbed the dead and urinated on first-aid workers, stories that made you sick in the stomach if you had been out on the field and seen the desperate, untutored efforts to help the dead and the dying.
While the ambulances were held up by police because a "riot" was going on, those makeshift stretchers were made and there were beseeching attempts at mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
In the absence of any form of official apology, which is the last scandal of Hillsborough, the steady seepage of truth is no doubt a small source of comfort to the bereaved.
The worst of the lies have been held up to the light and been ridiculed. But this does nothing to lessen the need for that apology.
Closure cannot come without it because it is one thing to know what happened, and see that it is plain to all dispassionate witnesses, and quite another to wait so long for such a concession from those who out of self-interest tried hardest to deny it.
In so many ways, those who have argued most passionately for the dead of Hillsborough have been vindicated. They have kept faith with the memory of their loved ones and they have exposed terrible injustice.
All that is left is the need for a breath of atonement. Twenty years is long enough to wait but then if you were there and powerless it is easy to understand why some will keep up their hopes until the day they die.