The Hillsborough Disaster: A Preventable Tragedy

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The Hillsborough Disaster is perhaps not as well-known in the United States as it should be. However, that may be changing.  This spring, this terrible tragedy “celebrated” its solemn 25th anniversary, and a new inquest into the event’s 96 deaths will open during the summer of 2014. What caused nearly 100 innocent people to lose their lives on a day that should have been full of fun and happiness?  And could it happen again, here in Pennsylvania?

Soccer stadium in a night match

Leading Up to the Accident

Like football in the United States, soccer (or “football,” depending on where you live) is king in the United Kingdom.  English footballers are major celebrities, and the fans have gained a reputation for die-hard dedication to their favorite teams.  Unlike soccer games in America, soccer games in England are often hugely hyped, raucous events attended by enormous crowds.

On the afternoon of April 15, 1989, one crowd turned out to be too enormous — with awful consequences.

That day, an FA (Football Association) Cup Semi-Final was being held at a venue called Hillsborough Stadium, located in Liverpool.  The stadium had roots dating all the way back to 1899 and had safely hosted countless games during its long history.  At the time, the massive stadium’s capacity was capped at 39,732 people.

Of course, like any other, the venue was broken down into sections.  Sections in the lower stands were divided into several “pens,” which were enclosed by steel fences intended to help control crowds.  The official safe capacity of the combined pens involved in the accident was set at 2,200 people.  Crush barriers had been installed in the pens.

Metallic Wire Chain Link Fence

96 People Crushed to Death by Massive Crowd

As the match began, anxious fans were still pouring into Hillsborough — or trying to.  To help prevent a crowd crush outside of the stadium, police patrolling the event ordered an exit gate known as Gate C to be opened.  Passing through Gate C, an estimated 5,000 people then funneled into a tunnel which opened directly into two of the stadium’s pens (designated number three and number four).

It is easy — and horrifying — to predict where this series of events is leading.  As fan after fan forced their way deeper into the stadium and toward the pens, the physical pressure on people already inside of the pens began to intensify.

And continued to intensify.

Separated from the rapidly compressing front of the pens by literally thousands of people in between, the fans entering the stadium could not see what was happening closer to the game itself.  They were completely oblivious to the problem they were causing.  But for those already trapped inside the pens, there was no escape from the human tide.

As spectators and officials began to notice the chaos unfolding in the pens, help was rushed to the scene.  Firefighters and ambulances clustered around the crush, but their access was limited due to the crush itself.

For 96 innocent people, help arrived too late.  Hundreds more were non-fatally injured.

PRAGUE - MAY 25: Huge crowd of ice hockey fans celebrating the v

Who Caused the Hillsborough Disaster?

96 people were dead, and many more were hurt.  How did this happen?  Who was responsible?

As with most disasters, Hillsborough was a case of one too many flaws in the safety system.

The pens were officially rated at a safe capacity of about 2,200 occupants.  However, this figure was later determined to be too high, with the real safe limit cut closer to 1,600.  Even if the official figure had been correct, there still would have been roughly twice that many fans crammed into the pens.

Additionally, the way the crowd was directed — and the police who issued those directions — came under intense scrutiny from an angry public and the British legal community alike. Lord Justice Taylor was charged with opening an inquest into the disaster to get to the bottom of the causes.

Taylor’s findings, collectively known as the Taylor Report, pointed a steady finger at the police manning the game.  In his words, “Policing on 15 April broke down.”  He bluntly stated that “the main reason for the disaster was the failure of police control.”

Police personnel had their own opinions on their crowd control tactics.  They countered that the regular, routine procedures used in such situations had been followed and that there was no reason to suspect anything dangerous or unusual would occur.  Police also pointed out that the choice to open Gate C was made partially because build-up around the stadium’s old, narrow turnstiles was creating a danger to people outside of Hillsborough.

police line up

New Inquest Offers Hope of New Verdict

In 1991, an inquest into the event determined that the 96 deaths had been accidental, and not the result of negligence or carelessness on behalf of the police.  Needless to say, the victims’ families were devastated.

Since then, numerous claims have been filed and cases opened, and Lord Justice Goldring announced a new inquest hearing would begin in June of 2014.  The inquest could prove to be a monumental turning point for those relatives whose hearts were broken by the accidental death ruling made during the early 1990s.  For relatives, the hope is that “accidental death” will be changed to “unlawful killing.”

That hope may be realized.  This time around, the International Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) will also be launching an investigation.  Statements from the IPCC have already called it “the biggest criminal and misconduct investigation ever conducted by the police in England and Wales.”

In the words of Lord Goldring, “We and all the other organisations involved want to ensure the mistakes that have been made by inquiries into the disaster in the past are not repeated.”

Today, numerous memorials have been erected to the victims of the Hillsborough Disaster. But that can’t bring back 96 people whose wrongful deaths could have — and should have — been avoided.

If you or someone you love has been hurt by carelessness or negligence, you may have a strong personal injury claim.  To schedule a free and confidential legal consultation with an experienced Pennsylvania attorney, call the law offices of The Reiff Law Firm at (215) 246-9000, or contact us online.

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