On This Day

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Associated Press
Supporters tend to the wounded on the field at Hillsborough, April 15, 1989.

On This Day: 96 Soccer Fans Die in Hillsborough Disaster

April 15, 2011 05:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On April 15, 1989, thousands of Liverpool supporters crowded into a match at Hillsborough Stadium, causing 96 people to be crushed to death. The tragedy, which was the result of poor policing and outdated stadium design, led to new safety measures that changed the nature of English soccer.

Mounting Horror in the Stands

Liverpool and Nottingham Forest were playing in the FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield. Though Liverpool had the larger fan base, its supporters were assigned to the Leppings Lane end of the stadium, which held 6,000 fewer seats than Forest’s section.

Heavy traffic caused many fans to reach the game late, and just before kickoff there were thousands of Liverpool fans congregating outside the Leppings Lane end. Many arrived with no tickets—hoping that they could buy them at the ticket window—or were sold counterfeit tickets, leading to overcrowding outside the turnstiles.

Hoping to alleviate the overcrowding, police opened exit gates, allowing a flood of people to rush through the central tunnel to the already crowded pens 3 and 4 behind the Liverpool goal. An estimated 3,000 fans eventually crowded into the pens, which were designed to hold about 1,600.

Fans at the front of pens 3 and 4 were shoved against steel fencing that separated the fans from the field. Some fans tried to climb over the fence, while fans in the stadium’s upper tiers reached down and pulled some desperate people to safety.

A policeman ordered that the game be halted after six minutes, and fans were allowed onto the pitch. “In the chaotic aftermath,” writes the BBC, “supporters tore up advertising hoardings to use as makeshift stretchers and tried to administer first aid to the injured.” But the authorities, believing that the problem was crowd violence, were slow to help, and dozens of ambulances went unused.

A total of 766 people, almost all Liverpool supporters, were injured and 96 people died in the worst disaster in England’s sporting history.

Hillsborough and the Modernization of English Soccer

British soccer has a long history of fan hooliganism, which had reached a peak in the 1980s. In 1985, 39 people were killed at Heysel Stadium in Brussels, Belgium, after Liverpool supporters attacked supporters of Italian side Juventus, causing a concrete wall to collapse.

Measures designed to reduce hooliganism, such as crowd segregation and steel fences around the pitch, contributed to the Hillsborough disaster. Furthermore, authorities were conditioned to see all crowd problems as the result of crowd violence, and were slow to realize that Hillsborough was caused by overcrowding.

A government inquiry, headed by Lord Justice Taylor, laid the blame for Hillsborough on the poor crowd-handling by the local police, particularly its decision to open the exit gates and its failure to direct fans to less crowded stadium terraces to the side.

The Taylor Report also blamed the stadium design and called for all stadiums in the top tiers of English soccer to be modernized. It ordered that terrace areas be replaced by all-seating sections, ensuring that all fans have an assigned place to sit. It also ordered that fences around the pitch be removed.

The Taylor Report, writes Owen Gibson in the Guardian, “belatedly dragged the sport into the modern age. It drew an overdue line under a century during which supporters had often been crammed into crumbling, unsafe grounds behind fences topped with spikes.” Since its release, there have been no major stadium disasters in Europe.

The Worst Stadium Disasters

The Telegraph provides a list of the worst stadium disasters, last updated in 2001. The Hillsborough disaster joins the ranks of Spartak Moscow vs. Haarlem in 1982 when 342 people were killed in Moscow, and Peru vs. Argentina in 1964, when 318 people died after riots erupted because of anger over a referee call.

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