A Life in Death
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A Life in Death
Richard Venables, Kris Hollington
TRAGEDY IN THE STANDS
April 15, 1989, a glorious spring day. Clear blue skies, the sense of summer approaching and the prospect of an FA Cup semi-final match between top Championship rivals Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, played on the neutral ground of Sheffield Wednesday's Hillsborough Stadium.
Except, just my luck, I'd been posted outside.
Thirteen years a cop, I was a plain-clothed CID sergeant but had squeezed back into an ill-fitting uniform after volunteering for twelve hours of overtime, 8am to 8pm, and a chance to see some footballing legends in action up close.
We'd been instructed to arrive in tunics, not shirtsleeves and I sweated enviously at the tens of thousands of lightly-clad fans striding past. Still, it was a pleasure to be a part of that charged atmosphere. The last match I worked on was at my club Rotherham, with a crowd of five thousand. I'd supported the Millers since I was four-years-old, through joy and misery (mainly misery) and – apart from the atmosphere – there was little difference in terms of policing. The briefing, delivered in the North Stand by Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, the police commander for the game was bog standard: we were there to prevent disorder – especially on the pitch. We didn't give it much thought; it was like being on a plane while the air stewards go through their usual 'in the event of' routine. I just wanted to get out there and soak up the atmosphere – and then, along with my serial of ten constables, I was deployed outside of the ground on Penistone Road.
"What are we going to do out there," one constable moaned,
"Look after the lampposts?"
I was still managing to enjoy the atmosphere – the fans, arriving by the hundreds in chartered trains and coaches were rambunctious and in fine voice when I heard a clatter and turned to see a Forest fan had tripped over – or perhaps kicked over – a newsagent's sandwich board. I went over to check it out. The Forest fan and his friends went straight on the defensive, but I simply asked him if he was okay and took the stance that it had "jumped out at him." I found myself almost apologising as I picked up the board and took it into the shop: "Pretty stupid place to have put it in the first place," and they carried on their merry way.
We were kicking our heels as kick-off approached, and we heard roars from the ground as the players entered the arena. A few straggling fans hurried past. A Forest fan jogged up to me to ask if I knew which turnstiles were still open as all the ones on Penistone Road seemed to have been shut early. I tried calling on my police radio for advice but the system was offline. A couple of minutes later, an inspector appeared and ordered me to bring my serial into the ground. We didn't ask why, let alone wait to be told twice and we gratefully marched quicktime through the large gate on Penistone Road and, for want of a precise instruction, made our way to the perimeter track on the edge of the pitch. I assumed we'd been called in because of some public order issue, so we lined up on the track in case some over-exuberant Forest fans decided to invade the pitch.
Apparently, after chatting to a colleague, the match had got off to a flying start, end-to-end stuff, and Peter Beardsley had just hit the bar with a terrific volley struck from the edge of the area. I turned to look at the game and noticed that the players were leaving the pitch and a large number of police officers were at the Leppings Lane end, behind the Liverpool goal. There seemed to be a lot of activity and I assumed there'd been a pitch invasion, so I left my serial in position and, in the absence of radio communications, ran towards the perceived disorder to see what was going on. As I crossed the halfway line I could see handfuls of fans lying behind the Liverpool goal and, as I looked into the stands, I was awestruck by the sheer numbers of people standing there, swaying with the weight of the crowd, and a fleeting thought, "If only the Millers could attract these numbers," fluttered through my mind. I tried to call for information on my radio but the system was down again. More cops were arriving in the stadium. I saw two pedestrian gates either side of the goal had been opened and people were spilling through the narrow gates one-by-one, ushered out and onto the pitch by cops. Were they trying to escape fighting? No, and they weren't being ushered, they were being yanked through the pedestrian gates, being crushed by the weight of people behind them, also trying to get through, to escape – what? People were lying injured on the ground but there was no blood. I saw young faces, people who had arrived earliest for the best viewing position, pressed against the fences, which were designed with back-slanted tops to prevent people climbing over and onto the pitch. I looked to the back of the terrace; there was one way out, a four-yards-wide tunnel. The seating area above was also full and people were reaching down to pull others up from the terrace to the seating area. I took all of this in in seconds. Then I became aware of an Inspector's voice, shouting: "We've got to relieve the pressure here!" People at the front were getting crushed. My first thought was relief that it wasn't fighting, we just had to pull people out, tend to the injured, see them to hospital if need be, and then the match could be restarted.
As I drew close the true horror of the situation hit me.
People were being seriously injured. And even though I was just yards away there was nothing I could do for them. I was inadequate. I was helpless, no good to anyone. I was overwhelmed by sickening guilt. I wasn't ready. We weren't ready for this. Where were the cutting tools? Where were the keys that would release the pens? I was a police officer, sworn to protect life and I was useless.
That was before I realised people were dying right in front of me.
One of my colleagues was trying to climb over the grill. He was no help either, it was impossible to reach the people below, let alone pull them up, back and over the back-slanted steel fencing. The crowd was roaring, the volume was as high as at any football match – or riot – but the sounds, the screams, shrieks, brought home the desperation in their faces.
Suddenly, a miracle, the pitch side gates were fully open and events switched from slow motion to high speed horror; there were too many officers, too little direction but I felt relief as dozens of fans staggered onto the pitch; people seemed to be okay, injured but not dying, not as bad as I thought. I started to help the walking wounded, getting them into open space, away from the crowd, trying to create space; during this I glanced at a colleague, his face was a picture of total anguish as he carried a limp youngster in his arms, away from the pens. I saw some others who were tearing off hoardings, using them as stretchers to take the unconscious to the exit at Penistone Road, maybe so ambulances could get to them easily but there was no plan, no rationale. The Forest fans, themselves penned in, watched us in silence as we ran back and forth, and the numbers of people lying still in the 18-yard box grew moment by moment; I didn't consider the fact they were dead; maybe I blocked this possibility out, just focussed on getting people safely away for medical attention – but where were the ambulances? Still no radio comms, still no idea what was happening, if there was a plan, if ambulances were on the way. One ambulance made it into the ground and drove up to the Leppings Lane end and was lost in the crowds that surrounded it, it's sirens still wailing pointlessly; photographers were among us, men in fluorescent Press tabards, taking pictures as colleagues and fans performed chest compressions on the dying and injured, and I grew angry; that was an unnecessary invasion; cameras were all over the pitch and I imagined them zooming in; these images appearing in people's homes, people whose loved ones were at the game. I was desperate to get on the radio: where were the ambulances; what was the plan? Were the TV cameras off?
I felt both helpless and useless. The chaos was so great that it seemed as if no one would be able to direct our way out of it. I had to do something, so I joined some supporters and helped them stretcher one of their injured friends on an advertising board. We ran towards the Penistone Road end of the ground where we were waved over to the North Stand, close to the gymnasium; I assumed this was being set up as a first aid area and their friend would be treated there. As I ran back to collect more people, Chief Superintendent John Nesbitt grabbed me. He was a good man who led from the front; he'd famously arrested Arthur Scargill during the miners' strike.
"Get your men and form a cordon across the middle of the pitch."
At first I wasn't sure if he was aware that this wasn't a disorder incident but thought perhaps we needed to keep Forest fans back, so as not to make the situation even more confused. I gathered my men, which wasn't easy as I didn't know them by name, and we eventually joined a cordon across the half way line. Feelings of uselessness started to hit me again but there were now so many cops at the Leppings Lane end, I didn't think I could have done anything that they weren't already doing. I stuck to my instruction. Stretcher after stretcher passed us, carrying lifeless people to the North Stand. Instead of first aid post, the gym was being used as a makeshift body holding area – but I didn't yet know this. When I was told, I couldn't believe it. Too many people were taken there; they couldn't all be dead, could they? They didn't look injured, just unconscious.
My memories blur from this moment; something that frustrates me. I don't want to remember specifics but I'll never forget all of the victims. The next thing I recall is standing in the empty Leppings Lane terraces, making sure all of the victims had been removed.
Personal property was strewn about; to be marked, recorded and recovered by property teams later. The terraces were clear of fans, living or dead. I could have reported this without walking into the width and breadth of them but we did our job, as instructed. My ears rang in the eerie silence.
I'd smelled the stench of death many times before but this was different: the smell of urine and stale beer. Like pub toilets. That is the smell I associate with Hillsborough: terror so great the body loses control.
94 dead, 766 injured. Two more would die in hospital later as a result of their injuries.
Two hours later, all the cops that had worked at Hillsborough that day were back in the North stand awaiting the debrief. It was 5pm. It was still warm and bright. We were completely silent. Shell-shocked. This was like nothing I had experienced in thirteen years of policing. We sat, heads bowed, tunics open, ties off. No one had the words; it was disorientating. I was emotionally numb, almost to the point of indifference. I didn't know how many had died, I wasn't told, and at that moment, that may have been wise. There are times when facts cause too much grief.
The debrief contained little substance and was hardly a help. The stand down from duty was staggered but it was all over so quickly and I was home at the time I would have been if the day had panned out as planned.
I could barely talk. My wife and I had planned to go out with friends that evening and even though I should have cancelled, I stumbled along, in a subdued daze.
Mum and dad were babysitting our kids when the doorbell rang. It was a uniformed constable. He asked if I got home okay. Dad said I had. The constable ticked his box and that was the extent of my welfare check.
I was never asked nor encouraged to talk about Hillsborough. I didn't even cough to my mates why – when in the stands at Stockport versus Rotherham a week later – my chest suddenly tightened and I struggled for air, and I fought my way to the back wall in desperation. I couldn't be among a crowd and certainly never at the front.
Anfield was declared a shrine the Monday after the disaster. I visited on Tuesday, with a friend, DC Tony Cawkwell, one of the best thief takers I've ever worked with. Dressed in sweat shirts and jeans and we queued at the Bill Shankly Gates. I struggled desperately to hold it together as the countless tributes left at the Spion Kop end came into view. The victims became truly real to me then. They had mostly been young with full lives ahead of them. Their friends and families had been left with unimaginable grief.
I know that everything I felt – and still do – cannot compare with the torment of the families of the people that died that day; people that should have survived – would have survived if they'd been treated sooner. Then the cover up and injustices that followed, adding incomprehensible insult to unimaginable injury.
I will feel the guilt for the rest of my life. It is real, permanent, devastating. Flashbacks strike whenever life's not going so well (especially during my divorce and deaths in the family). I know I'm not the only one.
Cops are responders. We come running after an incident has happened. It's extremely rare for cops to witness incidents, let alone witness loss of life and to see a major disaster take place right in front of you, while you, in police uniform stand helplessly by unable to satisfy the basic principal of policing – to protect.
The public admission of police inadequacy followed, confirming what many already felt: we had not only failed to do our job, we were not fit for purpose. Lord Justice Taylor's report led to the realisation within the police service that new attitudes towards dealing with major disasters were needed. At the time, the Taylor report – added to my already strong personal feelings – made me want to disassociate myself with ever being at Hillsborough.
But, as it turned out, Hillsborough would come to be a defining moment in my life, in a way I could never have imagined.CHAPTER 2
BAPTISM OF FIRE
I was climbing through the upstairs bedroom window of an ordinary-looking, smart little detached house in Mexborough when I caught the unmistakable scent of death. It was August 1988 and I was a 31-year-old CID detective sergeant assigned to a murder squad trying to jail a mass murderer. I paused and took another breath. Yes, not overpowering but definitely there.
Mick, a solid and trustworthy detective, followed me through the window a moment later. We exchanged a look, knowing in some sense what was to come. The bedroom had been ransacked; clothes were strewn about, furniture had been jostled or overturned.
A dog barked. It hadn't made a sound when we'd knocked at the door. It stayed downstairs, possibly guarding the dead body of its owner, while we checked the upstairs, moving more slowly than normal, not wanting to shock ourselves. All clear, until I reached the bathroom. The toilet was stuffed full of neckties. I caught my reflection in the bathroom mirror. My skin was pale grey and I looked terrified.
Mick's pallor and expression matched mine.
Dry mouthed, hearts pounding, we started to make our way downstairs. I was closest to the bannister with Mick on the walled side of the staircase.
I tried to get some moisture in my throat. I could barely get the words out.
"You know what we're going to find down there, don't you Mick?" Mick swallowed.
We paused halfway down, and I kid you not, we held hands like a pair of kids from Scooby Doo. I had, in my twelve years of policing, seen dozens of dead bodies in states unimaginable to most people (even other cops), and our prime suspect was already in custody.
So why was I so bloody scared?
* * *
Twelve years earlier, in May 1976, as part of my initial training as an 18-and-a-half-year-old police constable for South Yorkshire Police, I was taken with five other fresh-faced, newly crew-cutted recruits on a visit to a mortuary to view an autopsy. You didn't have to stay for the whole thing but you did have to at least see a body.
Our sergeant waved us off with a big grin. We were in for a "treat", apparently. My first surprise was to see that the senior forensic pathologist that day was Professor Alan Usher. Just a few weeks earlier he'd held my balls in his hand as part of the police medical. Now I was going to see those same hands elbow-deep in a corpse.
I hadn't been able to sleep the previous night. The thought of going to the mortuary had really unnerved me but I was reassured by the sedate introduction given by an attendant who described the correct way to store a body and then the autopsy process, including continuity and paperwork. Then he handed us our aprons and plastic overshoes.
'Oh well,' I thought, as I fumbled to get the apron over my uniform, 'No turning back now.'