I stretchered victims away ...no closure after 30 years defies belief
THE gymnasium at Hillsborough used to be an old warehouse behind the far stand. As dusk began to fall on the deadliest tragedy in British sporting history, a few of us stood inside.
Still. Silent. Heads bowed. Supplicant to the people who had come from Liverpool to watch a football match but who were now filing past in a desperate search for members of their family.
Suffering in some small, inadequate measure with those unfortunate to find the loved ones they were seeking.
It was to this grey, dim, suddenly chill cavern that the bodies had been carried. Then laid out in rows so meticulously neat that it struck at first as somehow obscene.
Then came the wails of anguish as the blankets covering them were pulled back to reveal faces all too familiar. Children among them.
We were still struggling to comprehend the scale of the disaster we had just witnessed.
It defies belief that now, 30 years later, relatives of the 96 victims are still bereft of the closure which might apply some spreading of balm upon their grief.
It is said that the law moves like a snail. So it has in this case and now it has come to a halt.
Yet the memories live on. Vivid. Haunting. Indelible.
On that strangely sunlit afternoon I had expected to report on an FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest and approached the ground from behind the Leppings Lane End.
The gates had already slammed shut behind the thousands crammed on to one of those death-trap terraces which were a blight then on English football.
Thousands more were outside hoping, pleading, straining for admission. So heavy was the pressure that one huge police horse, its rider in the saddle, was lifted bodily off its hooves and into the air. At that, the fateful order was given to reopen the gates.
As I reached the old Press box, pandemonium was breaking out down there on those crumbling concrete ramparts. There was no escape. The exit tunnels were blocked by the flood of incoming fans. The fences which had become the national game’s unwelcome hooligan de-terrent barred the path to the pitch.
Not until it became horrifyingly obvious that people were having the breath of life squeezed out of them was the match stopped and narrow emergency hatches in the fencing prised open by stewards.
Liverpool supporters bore their stricken brethren on their shoulders to safety on the playing field. For many, it was already too late.
First-aid men were joined by volunteers from the stands.
We did what we could. I was one of many tearing down the advertising hoardings to use as stretchers. I helped carry one father to ambulancemen who went to work with frenzied will.
To what effect, I know not. I rushed back for another run. This time it was a limp, young lad. The medic took one sad look and redirected us to the gymnasium. At that moment the sense of loss felt personal. Though nothing like as painful as it would be for his father, mother, brother or sister.
Some of us had been put through a similar nightmare four years earlier in Brussels, at the Heysel Stadium, at another Liverpool match, a European Cup Final against Juventus.
That time it was Italians who perished, 39 of them. Margaret Thatcher was prime minister and she summoned a few of us to brief her at No 10. Thus began the long haul to all-seater stadia.
That, too, came too late for the Liverpool 96.
Now there was Hillsborough. No one wanted to see it again. The closure of standing areas at major football grounds in this country could be resisted no longer. The price paid for that reform in terms of human loss was far too high
Yet now some populist politicians are lending their misguided support to a movement for reopening those ghastly terraces.
Safe standing, they call it. There is no such animal.
If there were, they would not be seeking to uncage it had they been there with us in Sheffield on the day of April 15, 1989.