Nearly a quarter of a century after 96 Liverpool soccer fans were crushed to death in one of the worst stadium disasters in history, Prime Minister David Cameron formally apologized on Wednesday to the victims’ families, saying their “appalling deaths” were compounded by an attempt by the police, investigators and the news media to depict the victims as hooligans and to blame them for the disaster.
Before a hushed House of Commons, Mr. Cameron said the families had suffered “a double injustice” in the failures of the police, fire officials and other authorities to anticipate the disaster or to contain its scale once it occurred, and in the efforts that followed to cover up police failings by altering witness statements, and to pin responsibility on the victims for their own deaths.
The prime minister’s apology, and the findings of a new inquiry panel on which it was based, marked a stunning reversal in a saga that has been an open wound in Britain since April 15, 1989, when 3,000 Liverpool supporters sought to crowd into standing-room terraces approved for barely half that many at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, 150 miles north of London. All but one of the victims perished that day, many of them within minutes. The last victim remained in a coma until he died in 1993.
It has become known simply as the Hillsborough disaster, a horrifying reference point for sports officials throughout the world, and it has come to symbolize an era of rambunctious British soccer fans and the measures that clubs and the police took to contain them. Fences separated rival fans and prevented them from throwing beer bottles and other missiles onto the field. Clashes with the police were common.
The violence has receded in the past decade, and the sport has become a more family-friendly affair, with bans on drinking in the stands and the elimination of the crowded terraces where much of the rowdiness occurred.
In effect, Mr. Cameron’s apology amounted to an acknowledgment that the official version of what happened in the Hillsborough disaster was a stereotyped overlay, eagerly crafted by the police, on a far more complex event that had its roots in bungling and a cover-up by the authorities.
“This appalling death toll of so many loved ones was compounded by an attempt to blame the victims,” Mr. Cameron said as the new report was published, effectively rejecting earlier findings by a judicial inquiry and an inquest whose narrow conclusions, blaming police failings but also pointing to unruliness among the victims, had been battled relentlessly by the families for more than 20 years.
Mr. Cameron held out the prospect of the government’s seeking to quash the original inquest finding, which ruled the deaths to have been accidental, effectively exculpating the police. Legal experts said a new inquest, which could follow a government appeal to the High Court, could lead to compensation payments to the families, and potentially even criminal charges against some of the police officers involved.
Quoting from the new report, Mr. Cameron said: “The Liverpool fans were not the cause of the disaster. The panel has quite simply found no evidence in support of allegations of exceptional levels of drunkenness, ticketlessness or violence among Liverpool fans, no evidence that fans had conspired to arrive late at the stadium, and no evidence that they stole from the dead and dying.”
The latest inquiry came about because Andy Burnham, the culture secretary in 2010, successfully lobbied the Labour government to create an independent panel that would conduct a more comprehensive and objective examination of what happened at Hillsborough. The report was the result of an 18-month inquiry by that panel, led by the Anglican bishop of Liverpool, the Rt. Rev. James Jones. It examined 450,000 official documents on the disaster, many of them unseen by previous inquiries.
The panel, which included medical and legal experts, as well as an author of one of the most respected studies of the disaster, won a standing ovation from the victims’ families when the panel met them earlier on Wednesday. Later, church bells pealed across Liverpool in celebration.
The report contained grim revelations. Among them was the finding that many of the victims who were declared dead at the site of the disaster, barely an hour after the game was halted because of the chaos on the terraces, might have survived if they had received prompt medical attention. The report said autopsy findings showed there were 41 victims who did not have the traumatic asphyxia that caused most of the deaths, and Dr. Bill Kirkup, a physician on the panel, said they might have survived if they been taken swiftly to a hospital.
The report also concluded that 116 witness statements presented by the police to previous inquiries had been amended by the police “to remove or alter comments unfavorable to the police,” and that police officers conducted computer checks on those who had died in an attempt “to impugn the reputations of the deceased.” In addition, the report said the coroner measured blood-alcohol levels in all who died, including children, only to discover — a fact withheld from previous inquiries — that the levels of alcohol consumption were “unremarkable and not exceptional for a social or leisure occasion.”
For Liverpool, a center of wealth and industrial power in 19th-century Britain that has struggled with economic decline for decades, the report, and Mr. Cameron’s apology, had a profound emotional impact. As it descended into rust-belt status after World War II, the city found a source of special pride in Liverpool Football Club, known locally as the Reds, as the club established itself as one of the most successful teams in Europe.
Against that backdrop, the developments on Wednesday were taken by many in the city as a vindication, and not only of the soccer fans who died in the opening minutes of a semifinal matchup in the F.A. Cup, England’s annual club championship, between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, then also one of Europe’s top teams.
The families’ years of protest had drawn a measure of mockery from some quarters, including an article in 2004 in The Spectator, a conservative weekly, in which Boris Johnson, now mayor of London, accused the people of Liverpool, particularly the one-third of the population that is of Irish descent, of “wallowing” in their “victim status” over Hillsborough.
Dominic Mohan, editor of The Sun newspaper, publicly apologized Wednesday for an article the paper published days after the tragedy alleging that Liverpool fans looted the victims, urinated on police officers and attacked officers seeking to save lives.
“We published an inaccurate and offensive story about the events at Hillsborough,” Mr. Mohan said in a video posted on the newspaper’s Web site. “We said it was the truth — it wasn’t.”
ny times. an american report, so some of the analysis is sort of basic. more here and here