The Hillsborough disaster happened a few months before my ninth birthday, as a young Liverpool fan I remember trying to think what it might have been like in the crush at the front of the terrace - and drawing a blank. Even now I still can't really grasp it, nor can I really understand how it happened. All you can do is read the words of those who were at the scene trying to describe their horrifying struggle to survive:
“As soon as I was in the tunnel, I knew there were problems,” Tony said. “There was no going back. Just too many people. I kept telling myself to be calm, not to panic. I knew that if my head went down under the level of the crowd, I wouldn’t come back up. But the pushing just carried on.
“Then I was out of the tunnel. I thought it was over, just for a second. Then I knew it was worse. Much worse.”
People were still trying to force their way through the underpass, believing, like Tony, that the sunlight and terraces meant safety. Instead, horror waited. “I’d been turned around, facing away from the pitch, so I didn’t know what was happening behind the goal. It was hard to breathe and stay upright, but it had gone past the point of struggling and moving. My elbow was jammed into a fella’s neck and he was pleading with me to move it. He kept saying: ‘I can’t breathe, I’m dying.’ But I couldn’t move it. Then he stopped talking. His head went under.”
I understand that the police opened a gate which thousands of people piled through so as to relieve the press outside the stadium, and that the fans went as a body into two pens which were already over-crowded thus triggering the disaster. What I can't understand is how the police could have ignored what was going on in the pens, how they could have responded in such an incompetent fashion, and how they could then have doctored their reports to cast their response in a better light. However, this kind of deception by the police is not limited to this incident.
There is something singular about this disaster, it happened, not as a result of a force of nature, or as a result of malice, but as a result of thousands of small decisions made with too little information. The fans who tried to press forward into the grounds had no idea what was going on in the pens because they couldn't see it, once they were far enough into the stadium to become aware of it, it was already too late. From that moment on, the only way in which they could escape what was happening was by doing what they did - by struggling for life with the fences, the police, and with their fellow fans. It seems that many lives were saved by the actions of the fans whilst the police, having sentenced them to death by directing them into the pens, failed to respond.
People aren't usually aware of the safety systems which are designed to keep us safe from the consequences of group behaviour until they fail. Once can drive through a complicated traffic system thousands of times without being aware how the traffic lights, signs, junctions, bypasses etc. all act to minimise accidents whilst maximising traffic flow. However, once a light fails, or a sign goes missing, or an accident causes the delicate balance of the system to go into gridlock, then people become aware of how their individual decisions are channelled in a way that can be to their detriment if done improperly. What seems like a process of entirely free choice is in fact a choice directed along set routes through a system hopefully designed with our safety as its paramount goal.
At Hillsborough, this system consisted of two elements - the design of the stadium, and the reaction of the police and emergency services. As a result of previous deaths incidents at football grounds of rioting and pitch invasions, the stands at Hillsborough were designed to contain the fans in seperated pens from which they could not easily escape. The greatest importance was laid on keeping the fans from breaking through or over the perimeter into the centre of the pitch and thus disrupting the match. The police also had the prevention of rioting as their primary objective, no attempt was made to control the flow of fans towards the stadium, to get them to line up ready for the turnstiles, or to break up the fatally dense crowd which gathered.
Once the crowd had gathered, it seems unlikely that it could have been directed thorough the turnstiles without injury resulting, but the solution chosen by the police officer in charge at the scene triggered a much worse disaster. The obvious way of avoiding it - slowing the entry of fans through the gate and diverting the flow into the flanking pens - was never done. The police had been expecting violence, and responded initially to escaping fans by forcing them back into the stands. As crucial minutes ticked by, and blue-face faced fans breathed their last, they did nothing. Even when they did respond it was in a chaotic fashion which undoubtedly increased the death toll. The emergency plan which had been put in place was never initiated - by the time the officer in charge realised what was going on, it was too late for most of the victims - despite the amount of information he had available to him through CCTV cameras and the reports of his own officers.
The lessons of all this for us seems very clear, especially in light of the financial crisis of the past year -
1) Any complex system dependent on thousands of human decisions can create outcomes which none of those within the system could have wanted.
2) Information and directions should be communicated quickly and clearly to those within the system, no matter how bad the news.
3) Distrust any system which does not have the safety of those within it and around it as its primary concern.
4) Especially distrust any system which tries to contain those within it rather than direct them along productive lines.
5) If necessary, the system itself should be sacrificed to save those within it.
Thankfully football learned these lessons, and the disaster of Hillsborough has not been repeated.
[Update - Saw the memorial service today, where 30,000 people gathered to pay their respects. Seeing a government minister silenced by 30,000 people chanting "Justice for the 96" made me feel indescribably proud. I feel this to be a case similar to that of Derek Bentley - it doesn't matter if a re-opening of the case is too late, some measure of justice needs to be done.]