The relatives of 96 soccer fans crushed to death in Britain’s worst sports disaster were finally granted access yesterday to secret documents they have long believed will prove how mistakes by British police and others compounded the 1989 tragedy.
After battling for more than 20 years, the families were reviewing 400,000 pages of previously undisclosed papers detailing the actions of British police, paramedics and officials who initially investigated the deaths of the 96 Liverpool fans.
Advocates have long insisted that mistakes by police directly contributed to the stadium deaths and that other errors by emergency workers meant some of the injured were denied medical treatment.
“This is what the families and the fans have been fighting for for 23 years. Without the truth, you cannot grieve and where there is deceit, you get no justice,” said Margaret Aspinall, whose 18-year-old son, James, was killed.
The 96 fans died when they were crushed and suffocated in a standing-room-only section of the Hillsborough soccer stadium during a major soccer match, an FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest on April 15, 1989.
An inquest jury ruled in 1991 that the deaths at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough Stadium in central England were accidental, but the local South Yorkshire Police were strongly criticized for their actions. Officers herded about 2,000 Liverpool fans into caged-in enclosures that were already full, resulting in the crush.
The response to the disaster transformed the British sports world, bringing the introduction of all-seated soccer stadiums. That also helped clubs drive out the remnants of hooliganism that had long tainted British soccer and heralded a shift in the demographics of sports fans, as improved stadium safety meant more families and women attended matches.
After an era in which English soccer clubs were banned from participating in pan-European competitions as a result of fan violence, the changes to stadiums instilled a new confidence in British sport. That sense of pride was reflected this summer in London’s hugely successful — and trouble-free — hosting of the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics.
No individual or organization has ever faced charges in connection with the Hillsborough disaster, but the families believe the newly disclosed papers could help them hold accountable those who were culpable.
The relatives were reviewing the documents at Liverpool Cathedral and plan to meet in the coming days to discuss whether any legal action should be taken.
British Attorney-General Dominic Grieve has said he would review the evidence to determine whether a new inquest should be held in light of the disclosures.
World soccer governing body FIFA says between 1971 and last year, at least 1,500 people died and about 6,000 were injured in 60 major incidents at sports events.