COLLEEN SMITH: It was much worse than a cover-up
I WAS sitting on the sofa, heavily pregnant with my first baby, watching afternoon TV. It was a Saturday in April and I can't remember why but I was watching Grandstand as the programme began reporting trouble in the stands at Hillsborough.
Anybody who watched that footage more than 23 years ago could clearly see exactly what was happening, live on TV, as it unfolded.
Yet it has taken until now — and 23 years of tenacity by the Hillsborough Justice Campaign — for British officialdom to hold up its hands and admit what clearly happened in full view of the public.
It's been called a cover-up. It was much worse than that.
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The official Hillsborough Football Disaster website, started by the families and survivors, this week sums it up: "Hillsborough becomes a metaphor for British society today. It is a microcosm of how society operates. Viewed in this way the history of Hillsborough becomes the history of injustice, of cover-up, and collusion."
I agree. But it was a collusion we were all involved in. It was the powers-that-be who tried to shift blame. And bureaucracy that got in the way of finally revealing the truth.
But the evidence was right there on our TV screens that afternoon in 1989, yet those of us who were not directly involved turned away and got on with our lives, leaving the fight in the hands of the broken, the victims and the bereaved.
The media were as bad as the other great British institutions. They colluded in the lies and cover-ups by allowing themselves to be used as a mouthpiece for the blame-shifters who wanted to deflect any hint of blame or responsibility for the disaster. They allowed themselves to sink down to a level where it was acceptable to blame the fans.
The Liverpool fans were drunk, they said. They didn't have tickets. They caused the crush by arriving late. They acted like animals. They were robbing the dead. Some fans beat up a PC giving the kiss of life. It was four days after the disaster when all of those hateful stories began appearing in the press.
The Sun splashed it on page one. But other newspapers reported and commented on the same lines. The source of the 'evidence' was South Yorkshire police.
Even if some fans had been to the pub before the match, how does that make them responsible? And is being late for a match because of roadworks a reason to die?
The real truth was there for everybody to see on Grandstand. I had seen innocent people being crushed to death. Most of them were teenage boys. And right in front of our eyes the police could be seen pushing those innocent people back into their cages.
I remember standing up and shouting at nobody, at the TV screen, 'Can't you see people are dying in there?' It was horrible to see the survival of the fittest. A few young men could be seen escaping the crush by literally walking across a sea of trapped people beneath them. They had to be young, strong and fit to climb out of the crush and be pulled up on to the terraces above.
As more and more injured and dying were laid-out on the grass, I was disgusted by the inhumanity of some officials. Police officers were filmed wandering between the bodies on the grass like zombies. Emotionless. They were there that day to deal with football louts and seemed incapable of switching from control to compassion. The footage shows desperate fans remonstrating with policemen and some officers who are at best blank-faced and clueless, at worst aggressive and violent with the Liverpool supporters.
As one lone ambulance appears on the pitch. The fans had to take matters into their own hands, desperately ripping off the advertising boards to make stretchers to try to get the wounded out of there. There were 96 deaths. It has now become clear that perhaps half were not dead when they were first lifted out of the crush, and might have survived if they had been treated more quickly.
Of those who died, 89 were male, seven were female, the majority were under 30 years of age, and more than a third were under 20 years. The youngest to die was a boy of 10 years. Two sisters, three pairs of brothers, and a father and son were among the dead.
It is the worst tragedy in British sporting history.
The deaths were attributed to crush asphyxia. The majority of deaths occurred at the front of the pens — 730 people were injured inside the ground and 36 others were injured in the crush outside the ground.
The numbers are hard to take in, but it becomes real when you read the eloquent words of people like survivor Gary Burns, who was 17 at the time, and can remember every moment as if it was yesterday. One minute he was in a happy singing throng, throwing a beach ball.
Within moments he tells how the pressure was so great that if you managed to gulp in a breath, there was not enough room to breath out again.
"It was the strangest, surreal feeling of being in the open air, underneath a perfectly blue sky but not being able to breathe. Choking in the open air.
Minutes seemed like hours, people still screaming, pleading, begging for help."
Gary was 6ft tall and finally managed to climb to safety. He remembers looking up and wondering how he would manage to scale the 7ft fence, but having no memory of how he got to the other side.
As the Hillsborough Justice Campaign website says: "History will record 'Hillsborough' firmly within the bounds of civil rights, and the bereaved and survivors of the disaster will long be remembered for the heroic stances they took against the might of bureaucratic forces in the name of justice."