LIVERPOOL - "We were all very excited," said Jenni Hicks as she recalls setting out for Sheffield on the morning of April 15 1989 with her husband Trevor and daughters Sarah and Vicki. They were going to see Liverpool play Nottingham Forest in an FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough and the only cloud on Hicks's horizon was that she would not be watching with her teenage girls. "We had three standing tickets but the family decided I'd have the seat in the North Stand," she told Reuters. "I was disappointed. I would have much rather stood with the girls." Had she done so she might well have been another victim, rather than a horrified observer, of the biggest stadium disaster in British football as 96 Liverpool supporters were crushed to death on the Leppings Lane terrace. As the 3pm. kick-off approached Hicks began wondering why all the Liverpool supporters were in the middle and not at the sides. She did not know then that overcrowding outside the ground had led the police to open an exit gate, sending a surge of fans through a tunnel and into the packed central two pens. With the match abandoned at 3:06pm., she saw "people in great distress" but only at 8.30 that night, when reunited with Trevor at the local hospital, did she learn the crush had claimed 15-year-old Vicki. The death of Sarah, 19, she discovered back in the Hillsborough gym, on a "big green board covered with tiny Polaroid photographs of all the people who had died." NEWSPAPER APOLOGY For Hicks, her grief was compounded by what she describes as the dishonesty surrounding events that day. She remembers two policemen asking whether the girls had been drinking. "It seemed to be all about alcohol. For goodness sake, we'd just identified our two children in body bags on a gymnasium floor." Four years earlier, rioting Liverpool fans had caused the deaths of 39 Juventus fans at the Heysel stadium in Brussels before the European Cup final. Ticketless Liverpool supporters, along with many from other clubs, regularly attempted to find ways into full grounds. Against that background, Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, the policeman in charge at Hillsborough, told FA officials that Liverpool fans had forced open the gate. The Sun newspaper made lurid claims about the antics of "drunken" Liverpool supporters in a front-page report for which it issued a full-page apology in 2004. The truth emerged with Lord Justice Taylor's report in August 1989 which cited the opening of Gate C and failure to cut off access to the central pens as the main causes and accused Duckenfield of "failing to take effective control". Yet, as Hicks says: "Nobody, but nobody was ever accountable." The subsequent inquest ended in March 1991 with a majority verdict of accidental death. As a consequence, there are questions the families believe remain unanswered. Britain's Director of Public Prosecutions ruled in 1990 that there was insufficient evidence to bring criminal charges but the Hillsborough Family Support Group -- whose president is Hicks's now ex-husband Trevor -- launched a private prosecution against Duckenfield and his colleague Bernard Murray on charges of manslaughter and wilful misfeasance in public office. When this concluded in 2000, the latter was acquitted while the jury failed to reach a verdict on Duckenfield, the judge refusing to order a retrial. CORONER'S DECISION Ann Adlington, the families' solicitor in that prosecution, said there was a simple explanation for why the relatives of the dead continued to campaign. "Had South Yorkshire police admitted their mistake at the outset people would have been getting on with their lives by now," she said. "Police officers' statements were edited to take out criticism of the police and instead to criticise the Liverpool supporters' behaviour." The biggest grievance centres on the coroner's decision at the inquest to impose a 3.15 p.m. cut-off time -- saying the victims were all dead or fatally injured by then. Margaret Aspinall suspects her 18-year-old son James died after this time. She argues that the inquest "was all about drink, latecomers and ticketless fans" and failed to investigate adequately the emergency services' response. Anne Williams, whose son Kevin died at Hillsborough, made a failed bid for a fresh inquest into his death at the European Court of Human Rights last month. The bereaved can at least point to the legacy their loved ones left in the all-seater stadiums that Taylor recommended. Aspinall said: "Every supporter in the country who goes to grounds in safety and 99.9 percent certain of going home to talk about the game with their families should remember the 96. Our children didn't get that chance."
11 April 2009
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