Hillsborough 35th anniversary: What was the disaster?

Tributes to all those who lost their lives at the Hillsborough disaster   (Peter Byrne / PA)
Tributes to all those who lost their lives at the Hillsborough disaster (Peter Byrne / PA)

Today, to mark the 35th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, a minute's silence will be held in Liverpool.

A bell will then toll 97 times, to commemorate each victim.

The disaster cost the lives of 97 football supporters, including women and children, at Sheffield’s Hillsborough ground, on April 15, 1989.

Fans were crushed in a bottleneck entering the stadium, with 760 further fans suffering injuries.

The silence will take place at Exchange Flags near the town hall at 3.06pm, the time the match was halted 35 years ago.

The tragedy was largely attributed to mistakes made by the police, with recent apologies from the force due to their “profound failings” which have “continued to blight” relatives of victims.

They further admitted “policing got it badly wrong” during and after the fatal stadium crush, promising for “cultural change” and key lessons being learned.

We delve into the history of the disaster and look at what changes have been made to avoid a disaster like Hillsborough.

What was the Hillsborough disaster?

The Hillsborough disaster was caused by a fatal crush in the lower tier of Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, on April 15, 1989.

Ninety-seven Liverpool supporters lost their lives at the FA Cup semi-final sold-out game against Nottingham Forest.

Police were worried about hooliganism and made the two sets of supporters enter from different sides of the stadium.

However, a bottleneck formed among the Liverpool fans as they attempted to enter the stadium on the Leppings Lane side, with around 10,100 people building up.

Half-an-hour before the game, and with many fans still outside, Yorkshire Police Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield approved the opening of exit gate C, causing an influx of fans rushing into pens, causing the deadly crush.

The commotion was rebuffed by police initially as problems with unruly supporters but, after the match was halted, the full extent of the problem was clear.

But, despite this, police never “fully activated the major incident procedure”, resulting in 97 people being crushed to death and a further 760 injuries.

Inquest into the Hillsborough disaster

After 20 years of campaigning from family members, the first inquest verdict of accidental death was quashed in December 2012.

A new inquest jury found the then-match commander, Chief Supt Duckenfield, was “responsible for manslaughter by gross negligence” due to a breach of his duty of care.

In 2021, the South Yorkshire and West Midlands police forces subsequently agreed to pay damages to around 600 people over a cover-up following the disaster.

Could a Hillsborough-type incident happen again?

The College of Policing and The National Police Chiefs’ Council gave a joint response in regard to a report published in 2017, which consulted the families.

That was the first reply from a major public body to the report, published by former Liverpool bishop James Jones.

In his 117-page report, the Rt Revd Jones said: “The experience of the Hillsborough families demonstrates the need for a substantial change in the culture of public bodies.”

Consideration of a public authority accountability bill, or Hillsborough law, was one of 25 recommendations, to create a legal duty of candour on public authorities and officials, with criminal prosecutions for any failings.

This has been enacted as the Hillsborough Charter, for Families Bereaved through Public Tragedy.The charter and the Government’s official response is recorded on its website.

Meanwhile, the police has said there will be a new code of practice on police information and records management, to prevent the problems faced after the Hillsborough disaster, when records were lost or destroyed, and new guidance for family liaison officers.

Guidance on disaster-victim identification has also been revised, with officers told the terms “belonging to” or “property of” the coroner should not be used, the report said.