ITV's Anne: What happened at the Hillsborough disaster?

·7-min read
Photo credit: ITV
Photo credit: ITV

Please note: The following article contains graphic details of death that some readers might find upsetting.

New ITV drama Anne sees Maxine Peake star as a woman in search of justice following the tragedy of the Hillsborough disaster.

The events at Hillsborough have never been forgotten, with the footballing world continuing to commemorate the 97 people who died.

But even more infuriatingly, justice has never truly been served for those lost, with Hillsborough campaigners continuing their fight to this day to hold accountable those responsible for the completely preventable event.

Here's how the disaster happened, and why the fight continues for justice.

Photo credit: Pascal Rondeau - Getty Images
Photo credit: Pascal Rondeau - Getty Images

Saturday 15 April, 1989

For the FA Cup semi-final, Liverpool and Nottingham Forest are set to play at Hillsborough, the neutral Sheffield Wednesday's home ground.

As a sold-out event, it's expected 54,000 supporters will attend, with Liverpool fans directed to come through the Leppings Lane entrance on the west end of the stadium, mainly to separate them from Nottingham's fans. The entrance is formed of only seven turnstiles, at the top of a bottleneck-shaped road. Up to 10,000 Liverpool supporters have tickets to the standing terraces on their side of the pitch.

Photo credit: Allsport/David Cannon - Getty Images
Photo credit: Allsport/David Cannon - Getty Images

The standing terraces are split into four sections. Upon entering through the turnstiles, a tunnel allows you to walk directly into the central two sections, just behind the goal. The two outer sections are accessible through gates at the top of the central pens, or by walking around. However, this is not immediately evident, and without guidance, most head directly into the central two sections. Usually when this section is considered full, the tunnel is closed off and supporters are redirected to the outer pens.

By 2pm, only 2000 people have made their way through the turnstiles, with a crowd growing rapidly outside the grounds, and tension builds to get in before kick-off. Despite consideration, Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, who was in charge of crowd control at the event, opts not to delay the match starting to get people into the ground. By 2.45pm, 4,500 of those with terraced tickets are yet to get in, and are packed into a now overcrowded and narrow street.

After numerous requests by Superintendent Roger Marshall, Duckenfield finally gives the go-ahead to open exit gate C – a large iron gate next to the turnstiles, in order to relieve the pressure.

Photo credit: ITV
Photo credit: ITV

As soon as they do, more than 2000 fans flood through the gate and head straight down the tunnel into the central pens, which are already overcrowded.

Loudspeakers had been urging the crowd to move forward or sideways before the gates opened, but as fans are fenced in, there's only so much they can do, especially at the front where there is no immediate available exit. The result is catastrophic.

The match kicks off as planned at 3pm, but is halted by 3.06pm as the chaos occurring in the stands becomes obvious and dangerous. A barrier in pen three breaks, causing dozens of fans to fall forwards, increasing the already intense pressure on those at the front of the pen, beginning to crush them.

In the panic, fans try to flee the pen in any way they can. Supporters in the stands above them start hoisting who they can up to safety, while others attempt to climb over the pen fences to get air.

Police eventually open the narrow gates near the pitch so people can get out, but with so many injuries, and by this point fatalities, fans including off-duty doctors, police officers and fire servicemen use promotional boards for makeshift stretchers to get the wounded to safety on the pitch.

By the time the first ambulance arrives at 3.14pm, many are already dead.

Photo credit: Dave Thompson - Getty Images
Photo credit: Dave Thompson - Getty Images

How many fans died at Hillsborough?

A total of 94 people died on the day of the disaster, with another dying from injuries while in hospital. 400 people are admitted to A&E, 14 of them dying.

This death toll was officially recounted to 96 in 1993, when the family of Tony Bland, one of the supporters who suffered severe injuries in the disaster, won a case in the High Court to allow him to be taken off artificial feeding.

In 2021, this number was upped again to 97. Andrew Devine, who was 22 at the match, died as a consequence of his injuries. Following the incident, he was left in a vegetative state for eight years and never fully recovered. His death was noted as being “unlawfully killed” at the Hillsborough disaster.

As well as this, one survivor needed eight years of psychiatric care to recover from the trauma of witnessing the event, and at least three other attendees have died by suicide.

The youngest person to die was 10-year-old Jon-Paul Gilhooley. His cousin, Steven Gerrard, would go on to become Liverpool's team captain. Gerrard was eight at the time of the incident, and says it spurred him on to become a footballer for the team.

Photo credit: Paul Ellis/AFP - Getty Images
Photo credit: Paul Ellis/AFP - Getty Images

What happened next?

Following the disaster, members of the South Yorkshire police leaked stories to the press, implicating the supporters in hooliganism and suggesting their behaviour was to blame for the stampede. (Headlines that to this day mean The Sun is boycotted in Liverpool.)

Chief Superintendent Duckenfield would later claim Gate C was broken open by drunk fans trying to gain entry into the grounds without tickets, a suggestion dismissed in the later inquest by Lord Taylor.

While the police later corrected his claims as false, newspapers would still report that drunken misbehaviour caused the tragedy.

Subsequent reports would allege there was a mob mentality that caused the ruckus that claimed so many lives.

The deaths were initially labelled "accidental", though the 1990 report by Lord Justice Taylor criticised the South Yorkshire Police for its failings in crowd management.

Families of the victims, as well as witnesses to the event, would fight against the accusations, with Anne Williams – whose son Kevin died in the tragedy – among those leading the campaign to find out what really happened.

Photo credit: ITV
Photo credit: ITV

Six years later, it emerged the force had doctored 164 officers' eyewitness accounts of the Hillsborough disaster before they were sent to Lord Taylor. Edits included the removal of any criticism of the police's work that day, including the commands of senior officers.

But it would take until 2009 for those fighting for justice to finally catch a break, when Labour MPs Andy Burnham and Maria Eagle demanded all documents held by police in relation to the case be released to the public.

In 2012, 26 years after the incident, the initial inquest was finally quashed and a new one ordered after an independent panel created for the Hillsborough disaster uncovered significant failings by police. It also cleared Liverpool fans of any wrongdoing whatsoever.

The new inquiry opened in 2014. Evidence included the lack of organisation and bad decisions by the South Yorkshire Police and the appointment of Duckenfield to preside over the match, despite his never having done so at Hillsborough before, 19 days before the game was due to play.

Duckenfield came under further scrutiny when it was revealed he hadn't been on duty at Hillsborough for 10 years, while the man he replaced, Superintendent Mole, had successfully supervised the policing at the previous two semi-finals.

He also failed to go to the Hillsborough stadium in the days leading up to the match, or before signing off on the plan to monitor the supporters. Duckenfield claimed he was focusing solely on misbehaviour at the match, and didn't realise he was in charge of monitoring the number of people in each terrace pen.

Instead of monitoring the situation on the ground, he remained in the control box from 2pm onwards, watching the crisis unfold via CCTV.

He acknowledges that his failure to close the central pen when it was full directly caused the crushing in that location.

In 2016, it was ruled that the then-96 were "unlawfully killed" due to gross negligence by police and ambulance services, who failed to provide the duty of care that they should have.

However, in a November 2019 retrial, David Duckenfield was found not guilty of gross negligence manslaughter. He retired from the force on medical grounds, getting a full police pension.

A number of arrests were made, but all remaining prosecutions relating to the Hillsborough disaster were dismissed in May 2021.

After a £65 million investigation, no one has yet been convicted for what happened at Hillsborough.

Anne airs across four nights, from 2nd January at 9pm on ITV.

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