16 Apr 2019

Hillsborough 30 years on: A survivor remembers

From Nine To Noon, 11:26 am on 16 April 2019

It's 30 years since thousands of Liverpool fans poured into a stadium in Sheffield to watch their team play Nottingham Forest in a FA cup semi-final match. Almost 100 of them never made it home.

Visiting Liverpool fans were caught up in a crush on a terrace on 15 April 1989; 96 died, 400 were hospitalised and 700 were injured. In 2016 a jury in England concluded the 96 Liverpool fans who died as a result of the crush were unlawfully killed.

Liverpool's fans hold up a mosaic making out the number "96" as they observe a minute's silence for the 30th Anniversary of the the Hillsborough disaster.

Liverpool's fans hold up a mosaic making out the number "96" as they observe a minute's silence for the 30th Anniversary of the the Hillsborough disaster. Photo: AFP

Shortly before kick-off, in an attempt to ease overcrowding outside the Hillsborough Stadium's entrance turnstiles, police commander, chief superintendent David Duckenfield, ordered an exit gate to be opened, leading to an influx of even more supporters to the already overcrowded central pens

Just 5 minutes and 30 seconds into the game, it became apparent that something was desperately wrong and the game was called off. Video of the match shows people trying to drag those hurt over the top of the wire fence the separated fans from the pitch.

Attempts to hold anyone accountable for their deaths are still ongoing, with a jury unable earlier this month to decide whether Duckenfield was responsible for gross negligence manslaughter.

Police at first blamed the tragedy on drunken fans, an explanation that was always rejected by survivors, relatives of the victims and the wider Liverpool community. Families spent decades campaigning for justice for the 96.

Wellington-based Danny Fearon was 19 at the time and gave up seated tickets to join his fellow Liverpool fans in the pen.

Thirty years on and things are still quite raw for Fearon, who can recall clearly the events of the day.

“I do remember that Liverpool fans were quite late, I certainly was, I think I was in Sheffield at about 20 past, half past 12 and I got to the ground at about 25 past 2. Inevitably, as you always did back in those days, you had a couple in the pub on the way in to meet up with other fans, and what have you. I for one wanted to swap my ticket, I didn’t want to sit down in the seats, that was too boring for me, I wanted to go in where the atmosphere was.

“The Liverpool fans had a much bigger fan base back then, so I think both teams were allocated the best part of 18,000-19,000 tickets but of course as was traditional for a big match, lots more fans used to travel to the match than that because you’d be hoping to buy a ticket, get in by any means. That was quite normal.”

He says the year before, when the same two teams were playing in the same stadium, there was a police cordon that didn’t let anyone past who didn’t have a ticket. The cordon wasn’t there on that day.

The crowd crushing together outside the wall was as bad as he’d ever seen on that day. Fearon was pinned to a wall 4 feet away from the turnstile trying to get in.

“If you were outside that stadium at that moment you would have recognised how bad it was outside the ground.”

“A lot of people criticised the police, but it was very difficult for the police because back then crowd trouble, fighting and violence, was reasonably a norm amongst the bigger clubs. Nottingham Forest certainly did have a reputation for that.”

Another feature of the stadium was that when you walked through the tunnel there was a step and a fence making you go either left or right into the pens.

Hillsborough stadium 15 April, 1989 when 96 fans were crushed to death after support railings collapsed during a match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest.

Hillsborough stadium 15 April, 1989 when 96 fans were crushed to death after support railings collapsed during a match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Photo: AFP / FILE

As more and more fans crowded into the pens at the front, against the fence keeping fans of the pitch people were dying.  

“The first girl that was passed over my head, a 16 or 17-year-old girl. was unconscious. It’s a bit like crowd surfing at a gig, what you tend to do is pass them to first aid on the side of the pitch, but in this particular case… the fence was probably about 10-12 feet above you and spikes that went back into the crowd so you couldn’t pass anybody over the top of that.”

The police thought fans trying to escape the crush were trying to invade the pitch and were knocking their fingers back in as people were trying to climb the fences.

While Fearon didn’t lose his life that day, he did lose a friend from college.

“There’s a feeling of helplessness, it’s got to be one of the worst feelings in the world to be asphyxiated in some way, it is awful, absolutely awful.”

He says it changes who you are and he ended up drinking quite a bit for a few years after the incident. It also took about a year for him to step foot inside another stadium.

“I really, really struggled to get back into that.

“Every time you see a reminder of it, you remember something different, you look at something in a slightly different view. I don’t really talk about this too often, I haven’t really told my family or friends in any great detail… inevitably you push something like that to the back of your mind.”

  • The truth behind the Hillsborough football tragedy
  • Get the RNZ app

    for easy access to all your favourite programmes

    Subscribe to Nine To Noon

    Podcast (MP3) Oggcast (Vorbis)