“They're killing us, Bruce, they're killing us”

I came across a detailed article by Brisbane -based journalist Derek Barry outlining the disaster that cost the lives of nearly one hundred Liverpool Football Club fans twenty years ago from today. Not only being an event manager, but a second generation Liverpool FC fan myself, I couldn't help but be drawn into the description of that afternoon game at Hillsborough, England. From a more shallow point of view also I find myself analysing the steps game organisers could have taken to avoid such a terrible consequence.

Wikipedia explains that the Hillsborough Disaster was a deadly human crush that occurred on 15 April 1989, at Hillsborough, a football stadium home to Sheffield Wednesday in Sheffield, England, resulting in the deaths of 96 people (all fans of Liverpool FC). It remains the deadliest stadium-related disaster in British history and one of the worst in international football.

Liverpool goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar gives his account of the tragedy:

“I said to the policewoman - I thought it was a policeman - 'Get the effing gate open. Can't you see that they need it'? And there were screams coming at the time. I kicked the ball upfield, and I went back and said, 'Get the f***ing gate open'. I turned back and the ball went out of play on the left, and that's when I shouted to the referee. The policeman came on to the field, and the game stopped."

The venue was not suitable for such a rush of attendees arriving in such a short amount of time. The allocation of tickets nor physical space at the venue were not in proportion to the expected demographics of Liverpool fans vs Nottingham Forest's. Organisers knew from the previous year that Liverpool fans would try to swap areas from the tiny spaces they had been allocated, but refused to resolve the issue claiming it would confuse the crowd. Even the technology which allowed organisers to calculate when the venue had reached capacity was flawed as it did not calculate for particular areas in the venue, merely overall.

Barry argues that "the one key change that did lead to confusion" was that the Chief Superintendent was newly promoted weeks prior to the event and had not managed such a game on the grounds for ten years. Requests for the game to be delayed were repeatedly ignored, whether to misunderstanding of the situation's severity or the choice of superiors. At one point, dog handlers were called instead of ambulances because police thought a pitch invasion was occurring  rather than the surging forward of the crushed masses.

Although the game was stopped after six minutes, doctors and nurses were not on the scene until half an hour afterwards. Even then, there were only six stretchers available for the entire relief effort.

I am glad, however that not such a terrible day has happened in UK football since, as ramifications were put in place immediately by the English government. Barry explains the consequences of the day well:

The Hillsborough disaster would ultimately revolutionise the game in England. Barely two days later, the Thatcher government set up an inquiry under Lord Justice Taylor with a remit to “"to inquire into the events at [Hillsborough] and to make recommendations about the needs of crowd control and safety at sports events". Taylor heard evidence from families of the bereaved, supporters, the football association, Sheffield council, Sheffield Wednesday staff and their insurers, police, fire and ambulance authorities, and a consultant engineer. After 31 days, the Taylor Report recommended all top division stadiums in England and Scotland phase out their perimeter fencing and concrete terraces, and become all-seater. By the 1996 European Championships in England, the game and its grounds had changed utterly. 96 people had paid the ultimate price to make the game safer for all of Britain’s millions of football fans. Their sacrifice, while preventable, was not in vain.

Woolly Days: The Hillsborough Disaster: “They're killing us, Bruce, they're killing us”.