Socialist Worker

Duckenfield’s ‘gross failure’ was substantial cause of Hillsborough deaths, court hears

by Sadie Robinson
Issue No. 2638

Tributes to Liverpool fans who died as a result of the Hillsborough disaster

Tributes to Liverpool fans who died as a result of the Hillsborough disaster (Pic: Nick/Flickr)


The failings of David Duckenfield in relation to the 1989 Hillsborough football disaster represented a “gross failure,” a court has heard.

Some 96 Liverpool fans died after a crush in pens 3 and 4 of the Hillsborough stadium in April 1989. Duckenfield was South Yorkshire Police match commander on the day of the disaster.

He faces charges of manslaughter by gross negligence for the deaths of 95 fans. He cannot be charged for the death of the 96th, Tony Bland, as he died four years after the disaster.

Graham Mackrell, then safety officer at Sheffield Wednesday Football Club (SWFC), faces two charges relating to safety breaches. Both deny the charges.

Richard Matthews concluded his opening of the case for the prosecution at Preston crown court on Thursday. He detailed a series of failings by Duckenfield.

“It is not merely with hindsight that we can look back and see that there was an obvious, serious and very present risk of death from crushing,” he said.

“It involves no hindsight to read the warning words of the 1986 Green Guide [into safety at grounds].”

Matthews detailed how police and SWFC could monitor the number of fans in pens. Turnstiles had electronic switches recording when a person went through.

Cameras in the police control box and the SWFC control room gave good views of the ground. The police box had phone systems and a PA system that could override any transmission, and broadcast to individual sections of the stadium.

Matthews spoke about instances of crushing and overcrowding during previous matches at Hillsborough. He said police took measures in response, including opening the perimeter gates onto the pitch and blocking access to the tunnel that led to pens 3 and 4.

The jury heard that the turnstiles at the Leppings Lane end of the ground weren’t sufficient for the number of fans. A crowd built up outside them.

The Guide said that turnstiles such be of sufficient numbers to “admit spectators at a rate where no unduly large crowds are kept waiting for admission”.

It said contingency plans should be made to deal with situations where large crowds had gathered. Matthews said that the jury would have to decide what Mackrell should have done in his role as safety officer about contingency plans.

The court heard how police had a policy of letting fans “find their own level” in the pens. Matthews said a key part of that policy was “the monitoring and supervision of what was occurring”.

Without this, the policy was “an abdication of responsibility”.

Hazards

Matthews said Duckenfield should have been “fully aware of the potential hazards” to safe entry of fans at Leppings Lane. And he said it was “fundamental” that the match commander had “personal knowledge of the situation”.

Matthews said that, as time approached a quarter of an hour before kick off at 3pm, Duckenfield “appears to have done nothing himself or put in place steps by others to sufficiently monitor and assess the number and situation of spectators in pens 3 and 4”.

Gate C was opened at 2.48pm and again at 2.52pm following a series of requests from officers. Matthews said Duckenfield ordered the gate to be opened on the final request.

The court heard that there was no attempt to direct fans to spaces in the wing terraces when Gate C was opened.

Matthews said, “It may be suggested that because others failed to do more, that means that David Duckenfield doing nothing does not amount to an extraordinarily bad or very bad failure on his part.”

But he said it was Duckenfield’s responsibility to take action himself or to put in place steps to make others take action.

Matthews said these failings “were a substantial cause of the crushing and resultant deaths of each of the 95 whose manslaughter he is charged with”.

The crush “was caused by David Duckenfield’s failures to know and understand the potential confining points of the stadium that confronted 24,000 people entering from the Leppings Lane.

“To sufficiently monitor and assess the number of spectators yet to enter; to take action, in good time, to relive the crowding pressures on and from those seeking entry; to sufficiently monitor and assess the number and situation of those people in pens 3 and 4; and, finally, in good time to take action to prevent crushing of those people in pens 3 and 4 by the flow of persons through the central tunnel.”

Matthews told the jury that Duckenfield “admitted to a series of failings” during the most recent inquests into the deaths of the victims. “He accepted that there would have been a range of resources and documents available to him that would provide guidance,” said Matthews.

“He agreed those resources emphasised the importance of careful policing of the crowd at the turnstiles. He agreed that they emphasised the need for contingency plans to respond to a situation in which the turnstile delivery rate was insufficient to prevent a large gathering of spectators at the turnstiles.

Mistake

“He said that it was a mistake not to have made sure that he knew the ground in better detail than he did.

 “He admitted he wasn’t aware that turnstiles A-G gave access to the inner concourse with the tunnel directly in front. He claimed not to have recognised the risk of overcrowding but accepted that it was common sense if you have a terrace divided into pens that there is at least a risk of overcrowding in any one of those pens.”

Duckenfield “accepted that, in his planning and the planning of others for the match there should have been some thought given to monitoring the influx of fans into the pens.

“He agreed that at half past 2 he ought to have been taking steps to find out exactly how many fans had yet to get in, he regretted not having done so and agreed that it was a mistake not to have made such an enquiry.”

Matthews also said Duckenfield had said that “he did not foresee where fans would go when they came in through the opened gates”.

Duckenfield agreed that a fully competent match commander would have thought about this. “He accepted that some of his failings were grave and serious.”

Ben Myers QC, representing Duckenfield, began speaking to the jury on Thursday afternoon. He said that anything the defence said was not aimed at insulting Liverpool fans. Myers accepted that Duckenfield had a duty of care to fans.

But he said the prosecution have “made him responsible for a great deal of things” in making the case against him.

Myers said the jury will have to decide what Duckenfield could or should have foreseen at the time. He suggested that some of Duckenfield’s evidence at the inquests may have been qualified by hindsight.

He said football in 1989 was different to football today and that some of the crowd behaviour would “horrify” modern crowds. He said this was not to suggest that the behaviour of the crowd at Hillsborough was at that level.

The trial continues.


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