My wife held the phone out the window… Her Liverpool-fan brother had hoped to see the match taking place literally at the bottom of our road, just 400m from our door of our new home in Sheffield. However, the closest John got this time was absorbing the sound of the atmosphere of fans passing our house towards Leppings Lane over the phone.
This was 15 April 1989. The occasion: the Liverpool vs. Nottingham Forest FA Cup semi-final taking place in Sheffield Wednesday‘s home-ground – Hillsborough. Before the day was out, Hillsborough’s name would forever become linked with the events beginning to unfold. These are some of my personal reminiscences of the following hours, never previously recorded – sorry for the long, and rather over-personal post.
We were not around during the actual start of the match, as we had visitors with us for the day. We had moved just three weeks before to the parish of Wadsley, on the north-west edge of Sheffield, where I was the new curate. We had gone out to walk in the Peak District, on the west edge of the parish, which also stretched east into the centre of Hillsborough. Pausing for an ice-cream from a van, the girl serving asked if we had heard about the match – we asked what the current score was. She said it had just been abandoned, and there was an emergency. They were calling for help from doctors and clergy. Two of our visiting friends were clergy.
So, back to the house quickly to find some of my spare ‘clergy shirts’ (with dog-collars). Pam was swamped in hers; broad-chested Andy could hardly button his. We went, as requested over the radio, to the hospital to await the arrival of the injured casualties from the ground. It soon became clear few were going to arrive. Many were dead, but very few were injured and hospitalised – despite there being over 40 ambulance available near the scene.
After waiting for some time, as the evening drew on, our friends headed back to their parishes. I had met up with the vicar of our parish, David, and he and I were re-directed back to the football ground. We walked through the Leppings Lane tunnel, stood on the terraces, amongst the bent and broken metalwork where fans were crushed to death. Coach loads of families from Liverpool were beginning to arrive. It was the Liverpool fans who had been at the Leppings Lane end, and all those who died were Liverpool fans.
There had not been many large-scale disasters in the UK before this, and national disaster procedures were not at all well prepared. On this occasion, clergy were joined by social workers with counseling skills, and asked to partner each other as families arrived. Perhaps it was a particularly agnostic or suspicious group of Sheffield’s social workers who looked across at the group of clergy, but for whatever reasons, they decided that perhaps they would be better partnered amongst themselves, leaving clergy out of the loop. As families disembarked from the coaches however, they immediately recognised the significance of the dog-collars and Sally Army uniforms, and flocked towards them, rather than the group of social workers.
Once inside the gym-turned-make-shift-morgue, some details were taken. Many families were already aware that their members had died – it was mainly groups of fans standing together, and when one of the group had died, the others immediately passed the information on, mainly by land-line home phones of local parishioners of mine, as it was long before the predominance of mobile phones.
I will not ever forget the wall with dozens of Polaroid photos of the deceased stuck on it – ‘do you recognise your son from any of these photos?’. Did I mention we did not have many good procedures in place?! 20 years on I am part of the Gatwick airport emergency chaplaincy team, and regularly train in case (God-forbid) of a future disaster. Our plans and procedures are so different; partly as a result of Hillsborough.
I was with ‘Andrew’s’ family. He was in his early 20s. Tall, strong, fit. A most unlikely crush victim. But he had had the life breath squeezed out of him.
By 3am, David the vicar said to me that probably one of us ought to go back home to bed, and lead the services on the Sunday 16th morning. It was a couple of weeks after Easter. We decided David was still deeply involved; I would go home, sleep briefly, then lead the services in church. Many parishioners were shocked by what had happened so close to us. A number of people had opened their doors to the fans, wandering around in need of refreshment and needing to contact families and friends back in Liverpool. Some of my folk shared the gruesome experience of the unfolding horror.
I was just about holding it together for the service, when the door busrt open, and 4 red-clad fans came in to be with other Christians in church in prayer on Sunday. A young lad of about 14, we were informed, had lost his mother yesterday in the crush. I can’t remember what plans I had had for the service – they promptly went out of the window. Our welcome as a church, and our prayers, felt so inadequate; but were so warmly received. I wish I had known their names.
A few days later, ‘Andrew’s’ family were back at the Sheffield city mortuary, for the formal identification. I went with them again. Then a few days later I went across to Liverpool, and at the request of the family, read a lesson at his funeral service. (Later I was embarrassed by the fact that there was another woman clergy colleague, much more experienced and pastorally sensitive than me, who had also been involved – but as a woman deacon, the Roman Catholic clergy leading the service did not know what to do with her, and I was the one who ended up reading.) Years later I saw ‘Andrew’s’ mother on tv, still involved in Hillsborough related campaigns.
Again a few days later, and the bishop of Sheffield, David Lunn, very wisely got the clergy who had most closely been involved, together for a bit of a de-brief. The Archbishop of York, John Habgood was there: as was one of the clergy involved a year before at in the Kegworth disaster. It was a most helpful and cathartic experience. It directly dealt with post-traumatic stress issues for me. Except for one thing…
There were a couple of tv crews there too, later, asking questions of those involved. I kept a very low profile. I waited until all the cameras were put away, and then takled one of the reporters. Much of the coverage was – rightly – focused on “Liverpool – a city in mourning“. But as I had shared in the shock and tears of members of my own congregation, I reminded the reporter that Sheffield too was a city in mourning. The football ground now the focus of the disaster had in the past regularly accommodated nearly three times the number of fans quite safely. Here were others who ached with pain for those who had died too. Thank you, said the reporter, I will bear that in mind. And a moment later, with a tap on my shoulder, he was back, with cameras unpacked again, asking me to go over the conversation again.
In a classic piece of sub-miss-editing, the trailer that went out before the main national news that evening said ‘local vicar speaks out against Liverpool’. I rang my bishop, in horror, claiming I was sure I had said no such thing. He wisely counseled me to await the actual broadcast, where indeed I had not, but simply pointed out Sheffield also shared in the grieving that Liverpool was experiencing.
The following year, 15 April 1990 fell on Easter Day. For me, for us at Wadsley parish on the edge of Hillsborough, no day could have helped us to better deal with the thoughts and emotions of the year before.
So, what reflections, 20 years on? David became chaplain to Sheffield Wednesday, a post he relished for a further 15 or so years. For me personally, to have been involved in Hillsborough was a painful, but rare privilege. It has been profoundly formative on my role as a parish priest. It has helped me find particular meaning in the resurrection story of Jesus. I am not sure I have any new answers that will make sense to others – but it has been a consistent bolster to my faith over the last 20 years.
May those who died, rest in peace. May those who grieve, also find peace in Jesus, the Prince of Peace.