26 years ago, twenty-four thousand Liverpool fans went to Hillsborough to watch a game of football. Ninety-six did not come back; a disaster that touched so many lives and changed the face of English football forever.
On 15 April 1989, the Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield witnessed perhaps the biggest tragedy in football history. The disaster occurred at the 1988–89 FA Cup semi-final match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. 96 people died, almost all of them Liverpool fans.
The incident has since been blamed primarily on the police for letting too many people enter the stadium. It remains the worst stadium-related disaster in British history, and one of the world’s worst football disasters.
Liverpool fans were allocated the Leppings Lane stand, entry to which was possible only via one of seven decrepit turnstiles, a restriction that led to dangerous overcrowding outside the ground before kick-off. In an attempt to ease pressure outside the ground police ordered an exit gate to be opened. The opened exit gate led to a tunnel which led directly to the two already overcrowded enclosures.
The ensuing influx of supporters caused crushing, and some fans climbed over side fences or were lifted by fellow supporters onto the stand above to escape the crush. Moments after kick-off, a crush barrier broke, and fans began to fall on top of each other. The game was stopped after six minutes.
To carry away the injured, supporters tore down advertising hoardings to use as stretchers and emergency services were called to provide assistance. Of the 96 people who died, only 14 had been admitted to a hospital. When the FA Chairman visited the Control Box to find out what had happened, police falsely claimed that the supporters had rushed the gate.
The 1990 official inquiry into the disaster, the Taylor Report, concluded that “the main reason for the disaster was the failure of police control.”
Condolences flooded in from across the world, led by the Queen. Other messages came from Pope John Paul II and US President George H. W. Bush amongst many others. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Home Secretary Douglas Hurd visited Hillsborough the day after the disaster and met survivors.
Liverpool’s Anfield Stadium was opened on the Sunday to allow fans to pay tribute to the dead. Thousands of fans visited and the stadium filled with flowers, scarves and other tributes. In the following days more than 2,00,000 people visited the “shrine” inside the stadium. The following Sunday, a link of football scarves spanning the 1.6 kilometres (0.99 mi) distance across Stanley Park from Goodison Park to Anfield was created, with the final scarf in position at 3:06pm.
A total of 96 people died as a result of the disaster. On the day 94 people, aged from 10 to 67 years old, died as a result of their injuries, either at the stadium, in the ambulances, or shortly after arrival at hospital, with 766 fans sustaining injuries.
On 19 April, the death toll reached 95 when 14-year-old Lee Nicol—attached to a life support machine—succumbed to his injuries. The death toll reached 96 in March 1993, when artificial feeding and hydration was withdrawn from 22-year-old Tony Bland after nearly four years, during which time he had remained in a persistent vegetative state and shown no sign of improvement.
Jon-Paul Gilhooley, aged ten, cousin of future Liverpool F.C. captain Steven Gerrard, was the youngest person to die. Gerrard has said the disaster inspired him to lead the team he supported as a boy and become a top professional football player. The oldest person to die at Hillsborough was 67-year-old Gerard Baron, brother of the late Liverpool player Kevin Baron.
Bells in Liverpool will toll 96 times later as the city remembers those who died in the Hillsborough disaster. The bells at Liverpool Town Hall will ring during a minute silence at 15:06 BST, the moment the match was halted. The media wall at Lime Street station will also display images of all 96 victims of the crush at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final at the Hillsborough stadium.
A memorial service marking the 26th anniversary of the disaster is to be held at Anfield stadium. Actress Sue Johnston, who has been a life-long fan of the club, will speak at the event. Flags on civic buildings will also fly at half mast and the Mersey Ferry will sound its horn while barriers at the Mersey tunnels will lower to observe the anniversary. Mayor of Liverpool Joe Anderson said: “We will never forget those who died at Hillsborough, and this is a day for us to unite as a city and remember each one and also their families and friends left behind.”
The new inquests into the deaths of the 96 Liverpool fans will resume on 20 April at Birchwood Park, Warrington. They started in March 2014 and are expected to continue until early 2016.