On April 15, 1989, the Liverpool Football Club was set to play an FA Cup semifinal game against Nottingham Forest. The teams were hosted at Hillsborough Stadium, in Sheffield, England. Instead of a football match, what unfolded within minutes of the game starting was an unbelievable tragedy: the Hillsborough disaster.
A total of 96 people lost their lives in a human crush, with supporters of the Liverpool FC being channeled into a fenced area behind the goal that was much too small for the crowd. Hundreds of others were injured in the incident, the darkest day in the history of the club – and in English sports history.
So what happened at Hillsborough Stadium that day, and what were the events that led to the deaths there? Although the police initially blamed the behavior of the fans for the deaths, the situation was far more complex than it first appears; crowd mismanagement on the part of stadium authorities has led to ongoing criminal investigations into what happened that day. Regardless of where the blame lies, the pain caused to victims and their families can be easily seen in the haunting Hillsborough disaster pictures, and it can be felt through the stories of those who survived.
In 1981, there were changes made to the layout of Hillsborough Stadium; however, the stadium's capacity was not updated to reflect those changes. Though the safety certificate had been made invalid by the alterations, it had not even been looked at by staff despite lapsing. Not only had stadium officials failed to update the capacity of the pens where the crowd crush happened, but they also didn't really keep track of the number of people entering the pens that day, which only added to the general lack of stadium safety protocol.
According to the BBC: "The pens' official combined capacity was 2,200. It was later discovered that this should have been reduced to 1,600 as crush barriers installed three years earlier did not meet official safety standards... It was later estimated that more than 3,000 supporters were admitted to the central pens - almost double the 'safe' capacity."
Safety at the often-rowdy football stadiums had been an increasing priority since the 1970s. There had been enough field invasions and large fights that many venues had added terraced fencing to standing areas, which made for better crowd control. The fencing at Hillsborough was designed to split the crowds on the terrace into "pens," to offer some separation and prevent overcrowding in any one specific area. Sadly, that day, the center pens were massively overfilled, creating a disaster instead of preventing one.
As fans continued to swell into the overfilled pens, some – those on the sides – made their escape by climbing the fencing and alighting in an adjacent pen. For those in the middle of the crush, however, this escape was not an option.
Before the match started, Liverpool FC had asked the FA to give their fans the larger pens at Hillsborough because they expected significantly more fan turnout than Nottingham Forest; however, their request was denied. The supporters of Liverpool were assigned the smaller of the two entrances, which also had older and less functional turnstiles. This led to a significant back-up of fans at the Leppings Lane Entrance.
The threat of the crush was actually outside first – as fans poured into the bottleneck, the pressure increased until police felt they had to open Exit Gate C to alleviate it. Unfortunately, the large number of people pouring in moved straight to the pens, and a single gate at the base of the pen did little to alleviate the pressure of the swell. Fans were already dying inside.
Because not all of the fans were inside the stadium yet, a police constable on the scene at the Leppings Lane entrance radioed in to request that the match be delayed in order to control what was happening and accommodate the fans. That request was denied. Fans, because the game began as scheduled, could hear the chanting inside and didn't want to miss the match, exacerbating the crushing and eager flow of people into the stadium. In fact, not only did the police commander in charge, Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, not delay the match, but he also ordered that the exit gate for the overcrowded pen be opened – to let more fans in.