Hillsborough: Still searching for justice 30 years later

“I wanted my big brother to help me. You know, I was scared and I was looking for him to try and resolve the situation for me.”

— Stephanie Conning, nee Jones, speaking at a 2016 inquest about the search for her brother in the midst of the Hillsborough disaster crush which killed 96 soccer fans 30 years ago on Monday.

Then an 18-year-old at her first major away match, Conning was there with her brother Rick Jones, aged 25 and his girlfriend Tracey Cox, 23, both students.

The three had tickets for the Leppings Lane end of the Sheffield Wednesday ground, which was the neutral venue for the FA Cup semi-final match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest.

A direct repeat of the same fixture a year previous, no trouble was expected even if Liverpool FC complained about having the smaller end of the ground while boasting more fans.

Even before the 3pm kick-off, there were serious problems building outside the ground.

A surge of late arrivals combined with a total failure in policing and an inadequate number of turnstiles led to a serious crush outside, which forced police commander David Duckenfield to open an exit gate behind the Leppings Lane terrace.

The terrace was divided up into three cages or pens, and as the gate opened, hundreds of Liverpool fans flooded in Gate C without their tickets being checked.

Without any guidance, they surged for the already overcrowded central pen behind the Liverpool goal. Two side pens were relatively sparse yet no steward or police officer closed off access to the central pen.

“The pressure was so intense, I felt as if I couldn’t breathe, although I was screaming ‘I’ve got to get out’,” Conning recalled at an inquest.

Despite the fact that people were already dying on the terrace, the Liverpool fans kept coming as the game kicked off.

After the initial surge I went forward and then I stopped, I turned around to see where they were, because I was very conscious of keeping us all together, because I wasn’t familiar with the ground, I wasn’t particularly comfortable with what had happened outside and obviously with that surge it was quite new to me, so I turned around immediately to see what had happened and Tracey had fallen down and she’d lost her shoe.

Conning said fans around her picked Tracey up immediately, and passed her shoe back to her.

Almost immediately, onlookers could see people beginning to scale the fences in order to escape only to be pushed back in by police officers who initially feared crowd trouble.

When Liverpool player Peter Beardsley hit the Forest crossbar at the other end of the ground, there was a tremendous surge forward on the terrace, further increasing the pressure on those men, women and children being crushed at the front.

When the Beardsley surge occurred, Conning was pushed forward and separated from her brother and Tracey.

Desperate, she was looking for Rick in the crowd but she would not see her brother or his girlfriend alive again.

With the disaster now escalating, the referee had no choice but to stop the match just six minutes in. He called the players from the pitch, many of whom seemed unaware of the tragedy unfolding.

Having ignored the pleas of the dying to open small gates to allow people to escape on to the pitch, the scale of the disaster was becoming clear and police officers belatedly sought to help fans escape.

Conning was the first person to make it out of gate 2 in the central pen and was recorded by BBC cameras looking dazed, confused and upset in the seconds after her lucky escape.

She tried to find Tracey and Rick.

Footage and photos from 3.30pm showed an unconscious Rick being carried on a hoarding across the pitch, before being placed on the ground at the corner of the Spion Kop and North Stand.

“He seemed unconscious and what you see on the pictures is exactly the way we found him. All I can recall is that somebody did actually feel a pulse,” said a fan who sought to help Rick.

Another fan recalled how he came across Rick, who was by now dead.

“The guy on the floor looked peaceful if you like.” 

He said Rick looked lifeless but confirmed he was only with him for a short time.

He said: “It sounds selfish, but I was looking for my brother.”

Footage from 3.26pm showed Tracey being carried onto the pitch.

In a statement, special constable Anthony Lomax described being passed Tracey and placing her down on the ground.

He said: “I laid her on the grass and she appeared totally lifeless. As soon as I laid her down, a St John’s girl came over to assist and I immediately returned to assist people out of the pens.”

He said he later returned to Tracey and helped to put her on a hoarding and carry her to the gymnasium.

But before Rick and Tracey had already been taken from the Leppings Lane terrace, as people were dying beneath his control box, the top police officer on duty, Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, placed the blame for the unfolding disaster on drunken ticketless Liverpool fans who had forced entry to the ground, causing the mass overcrowding on the terrace.

The 96 victims of the Hillsborough disaster (PA)
The 96 victims of the Hillsborough disaster (PA)

It was a lie fed to TV commentators and reporters that would be broadcast on the BBC by John Motson within minutes.

“It was the lie that went around the world,” said Belfast-based criminology professor Phil Scraton whose research would ultimately lead to that lie being disproven.

Both Tracey and Rick were confirmed dead in a gymnasium located beside the ground which had become a temporary mortuary. 

They were both identified by Rick’s dad Leslie at 2.45am the next day.

Describing events, Leslie told the BBC’s Panorama programme: “They wheeled the trolley and Richard was the first one they brought in. I identified him and Tracy was wheeled in and I identified her. 

"The only thing I remember about the gymnasium was a fella punching the brick wall. It was like new brick which was sharp and he was punching it. Nobody took any bloody notice, it was disgraceful.”

In less than an hour from the start of the crush, the terrace, complete with mangled and broken metal barriers, was empty.

The dead and injured were either on the way to nearby hospitals or to the gymnasium to be identified.

While family members were learning of the deaths of their loved ones, senior South Yorkshire police officers were already conspiring to shift the blame for the disaster away from their officers and themselves and onto the Liverpool fans.

Fan drunkenness was the line of inquiry with many survivors from Leppings Lane and blood tests to ascertain alcohol intake were taken from all of the dead victims, including the children.

That night, Scraton was in a Liverpool city pub where thousands of fans were returning shell-shocked from Sheffield.

Those Scraton met told him of the chaos outside the grounds ahead of kick-off, the failure of the police to adequately control a major crush outside the Leppings Lane terrace, that many of them did not have their tickets checked, and they told them of the scenes of death on the terraces which saw 96 of their fellow supporters lose their lives. 

They were all telling the same story.

What he heard jarred sharply with the official pronouncements which had come from the police and were carried across the media in the hours since the disaster which laid the blame squarely at the feet of the Liverpool fans.

Four days after the disaster, The Sun newspaper and others based on copy filed by a Sheffield news agency, published its highly controversial headline “The Truth” over a story which claimed Liverpool fans stole from the dead, urinated on officers, and beat up a brave constable who was attempting to save the life of a fan. 

The story and the portrayal caused huge anger in Liverpool which instigated a mass boycott of the newspaper. 

Within two months of the disaster, a small group of researchers began to fight the narrative that drunken Liverpool fans led to the deaths of their own loved ones.

“In the immediate aftermath, we wanted to present an alternative discourse to what was coming out from State authorities, ie that fans were to blame for the disaster. We set up the Hillsborough Project funded by the city council within two months,” said Scraton in 2017 in an interview with the Irish Examiner.

There was strong resistance to the project with Scraton and others accused of “winding up the families” of those who died.

There was reticence in my university at the time because the strength of criticism against the fans was so heavy, particularly the allegations of drunkenness, ticketlessness, and violence. Any empathy for those who died or who were injured evaporated.

It quickly became more sinister.

“I was on my own living with my two boys and I started getting death threats, which was around the time the report was published and it was clear we were touching a nerve,” said Scraton.

Shortly thereafter came the publication of the Taylor report, which primarily blamed the disaster on a failure of policing. 

He also slammed the police’s failure to co-operate fully with the inquiry and criticised Duckenfield’s actions on the day, concluding that “he froze” when confronted by the unfolding disaster.

“Duckenfield’s lack of candour” had “set off a widely reported allegation” despite knowing it to be false, concluded Justice Taylor.

Scraton said while Taylor’s report was important in rejecting the attempts by the police to blame the fans, it was a very limited report and omitted many crucial aspects as to why the tragedy occurred.

“It was mixed, Taylor was under immense pressure to get a report out in months which meant he could in no way do the intense research needed to uncover the history of the stadium failures, and the policing failures,” said Scraton.

“It didn’t look at the lack of a safety cert for the stadium, the failure of stewarding, and it put the police back on the offensive for the inquests.” 

Sure enough, when the inquests commenced, the police sought immediately to unwind the impact of Taylor’s criticisms, again trying to put the blame on supporters.

It turned out that everyone of the 96 who died — men, women, and children — were all subjected to blood-alcohol tests, which was prompted by claims to coroner Stephan Popper from senior police officers on the day of the tragedy.

As a result, Popper severely limited the scope of the inquest, enforcing a cut-off point of 3.15pm, insisting that all 96 victims were already dead by then.

Also, he severely limited the jury’s discretion in terms of a verdict. 

He instructed them towards the “appropriate” verdicts of accidental deaths, which ultimately became the official record.

The families were left devastated.

In 1996, Scraton, having been working on the Hillsborough disaster for some time awoke sharply in his bed and yelled out: “They all knew.”

For the weeks before, Scraton had accessed police statements in the House of Lords library relating to the disaster and found that scores of statements from officers who were on duty on the day of the disaster had been altered and sanitised in an orchestrated fashion. 

“I showed one officer his final statement which had his signature on every page. He said, ‘Phil that is my signature but I didn’t put it there’,” Scraton said.

The sanitising of 164 officers’ statement was done to divert blame from the South Yorkshire Police Force towards the Liverpool fans.

His realisation that night was that the cover-up over Hillsborough was not restricted to the police but stretched right to the top of the British establishment.

It was shortly after the 1996 Jimmy McGovern documentary on Hillsborough that Scraton met with a former South Yorkshire police officer.

“Walking on the Pennine hills, he told me how he and his colleagues had been intimidated by senior officers into editing their official statements about Hillsborough. Eventually, he handed me a bundle of documents.

“A covering letter from a senior partner in the law firm representing South Yorkshire Police affirmed that statements had been subjected to ‘review and alteration’,” said Scraton.

“I knew then we were in very deep water,” he said, realising just how conniving the police were in trying to blame the fans.

A year later, once the Labour Party swept into office, home secretary Jack Straw established a desktop review of evidence relating to Hillsborough which concluded there was no fresh evidence to justify the quashing of the inquest verdicts or any new inquiry.

More heartache for the families.

Scraton then published the first edition of his book, Hillsborough: The Truth, which was serialised in the Sunday Mirror, and included the evidence of statement-tampering by police.

“I thought this was the moment everything would change, but nothing happened, and so began what I called the lost decade,” said Scraton.

Nothing would happen until 2009 when then Labour junior minister Andy Burnham addressed the 20th anniversary commemoration at Anfield and he was confronted by angry chants of “Justice for the 96” from the 30,000-strong crowd.

Burnham promised that he would get the documents relating to Hillsborough released and convinced then prime minister Gordon Brown to relax the 30-year rule on them.

This led to the establishment of the Hillsborough independent panel, of which Scraton would become lead researcher and author of the final report.

Having failed the families in 1997, the Labour government acceded to every request from Scraton and the panel in terms of resources.

“I think they knew they had to go all out. But I was adamant that the report would cover everything, leave nothing out,” said Scraton.

The report was eventually published in 2012 and led to a significant double-apology from prime minister David Cameron in a packed House of Commons.

“It is right for me today as prime minister to make a proper apology to the families of the 96 for all they have suffered over the past 23 years. Indeed, the new evidence that we are presented with today makes clear that these families have suffered a double injustice,” he said.

“The injustice of the appalling events — the failure of the state to protect their loved ones and the indefensible wait to get to the truth.

“And the injustice of the denigration of the deceased— that they were somehow at fault for their own deaths.

“On behalf of the government — and indeed our country — I am profoundly sorry for this double injustice that has been left uncorrected for so long,” he concluded.

The Independent Panel report led to the quashing of the original inquest verdicts and the running of new inquests which would conclude the 96 deaths were unlawful and not the fault of the fans. 

Criminal prosecutions of Duckenfield and others have followed. 

However, last week’s collapsed trial of Duckenfield has certainly overshadowed Monday’s pending commemorations of the events of April 1989.

A retrial in Duckenfield’s case on the same evidence has been ordered, so therefore serious reporting restrictions have been imposed in the UK, which has led to some events being cancelled and or curtailed.

Anfield, Liverpool’s home ground will be open to the public to pay a quiet tribute but no formal service will take place.

The events of Hillsborough changed the face of British football forever but 30 years on, the fight for justice for the 96 goes on.

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