April 15, 1989 was the day George Hamilton went to cover an FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough and, with John Giles, ended up on air for two hours reporting live for RTÉ on an unfolding disaster that would take the lives of 96 people.
“I remember it was a beautiful spring day and everything was normal as far as our build-up was concerned,” George recalls. “Producer David O’Hagan and I were staying in Manchester and drove to Sheffield that morning to meet up with John at the ground and then we all went up to the commentary position on the roof. It was a high tension afternoon, great excitement, big crowd, terraces swaying — everything you’d expect,” he says in an interview in a special Irish Examiner Euro 2016 magazine, with tomorrow’s edition.
“My initial reaction when I saw people spilling onto the pitch was that there was some sort of trouble in the crowd but I didn’t want to say what it was because I didn’t know. I mean, the same thing had happened in Dalymount Park (at the overcrowded Ireland-Italy friendly in 1985) and might have had the same result — except that Dalymount didn’t have the fences and people were able to get out of the way.
“At Hillsborough, it began to become clear that things were getting serious when the players were taken off but I only realised how serious when they started carting people off on advertising hoardings and ambulances were coming on to the pitch.
“And then, I’ll never forget it, I saw these two guys with an advertising hoarding and somebody lying on it — and a jacket over his head. He was obviously dead. It was awful.”
Of his co-commentator John Giles’ role on the day, George says: “John is a very human person which I think helped. He had no expectation he’d ever have to do anything like that but his basic decency and humanity helped carry him through. He reacted in the way that any human seeing this horror unfold would.” And, for himself, George thinks that it was a day when his early experience as a current affairs reporter in Belfast stood to him.
“Undoubtedly it did. Not that I had been doing it recently at that point but it’s all part of what forms and informs you in moments like that. But it was only when I saw that poor lad with the coat over his head that I realised what this was at Hillsborough.
“I remember David O’Hagan saying to myself and John, ‘you guys keep it going and I will try and find out more’. So he went down. And when he came back he was white as a ghost. He said: ‘They’re lining up bodies at the back of the stand.’ And so I was able to impart that information, though perhaps not so starkly. It was just an awful experience.
“RTÉ News were then on to me and — you’d never be allowed to do this now — but I was able to walk down onto the Leppings Lane terrace and do a piece for news. And you could almost smell death there. It was really, really awful.
“At the end of the day, I remember driving back across the Pennines with David to Manchester and saying to him: ‘How many people that we were stuck with in a traffic jam on the same road this morning aren’t coming back?’”
Don’t miss the full interview with The Voice of Ireland, in tomorrow’s Examiner Sport Euro 2016 special
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