Socialist Worker

Hillsborough disaster was 'absolute chaos' witness tells trial

by Sadie Robinson
Issue No. 2642

A memorial for the victims

A memorial for the victims (Pic: Ben Sutherland/Flickr)

Police match commander David Duckenfield gave no orders as the match was stopped during the 1989 Hillsborough football disaster, a court has heard.

Some 96 Liverpool fans died as a result of the disaster, following a crush in pens 3 and 4 at the Leppings Lane end of the ground.

Former South Yorkshire Police (SYP) sergeant Michael Goddard was in the police control box on the day of the disaster. He said the police control box was responsible for monitoring the numbers of fans in pens.

Goddard said a request to close Leppings Lane to traffic at 2.17pm signified “volume of traffic, volume of supporters”.

He wasn’t aware of any discussion in the police control box about the build-up of fans outside the Leppings Lane turnstiles. He thought he heard superintendent Marshall saying “open the gates” over the radio at around 2.50pm.

Goddard said there was a “very brief discussion” about this between Duckenfield and superintendent Murray, relating to how many “non-ticket holders” would enter.

Soon after this he said, “Something was said that ‘they’ve broken in, they’ve forced the gates’ but I don’t know where that came from.”

The court heard that after a third request from Marshall, Duckenfield replied to open the gates.


Goddard couldn’t recall any other order from Duckenfield before this. He didn’t recall any discussion about the consequences of opening the gate.

Goddard could remember one occasion when the central tunnel leading to pens 3 and 4 was closed before the disaster and thought it was in 1987.

He didn’t recall any orders from Duckenfield or Murray when the game was stopped at 3.06pm.

Robert Purdy was a SYP inspector at the time of the disaster. He helped to oversee police officers around the Leppings Lane end.

Purdy told the court last week that the crowd’s mood was normal but there was “some agitation” as fans wanted to get into the ground. “The people weren’t fighting, there was no disorder,” he said.

He said the arrival of larger numbers of fans into the narrow area around the turnstiles after 2.30pm meant officers had “more difficulty in carrying out their duties”.

The court heard that officers had earlier formed a “natural barrier” around a metre from the turnstiles.

Purdy was later involved in rescue efforts. Asked if he received any direction or order from senior officers over this he said, “No sir, nor did anybody.”

He confirmed that in 1989 he hadn’t heard of the practice of closing the tunnel to the pens.

Andrew Sanderson was a civilian worker with South Yorkshire Police in 1989. On the day of the disaster he took radio equipment to the ground.

He heard some “breaking up” on the radios at around 2.30pm. He said most messages were coming through but some had the ending cut off.

He went to the police control box and said the radio system seemed to have “improved” when he left.

Sanderson estimated that communications might have gone down for around a minute while he worked in the control box. He agreed that control of a situation can be lost even if communications are hit for a short time.

Sanderson was aware that the radios were tested by the Home Office after the disaster and said “nothing was found wrong”.

A statement from Liverpool fan Alison Willis, who was in pen 4, was last week read to the court. She said once police realised what was happening there didn’t seem to be any organisation and it was “absolute chaos”.

Retired police officer John Bennett was an inspector at the time. He was involved in putting barriers and cones on approach roads to the Leppings Lane end.

Asked about fans’ demeanor he said, “The bulk of the supporters I saw were, I feel, in fear of their lives, or at least serious injury.”


Malcolm Edmundson was a SYP chief inspector in 1989 and was based at Snig Hill police station on the day of the disaster. Edmundson was in contact with the police control box.

At 2.51pm Edmundson referred to “bloody chaos at Leppings Lane” and said, “All the gates have been trampled down.” He agreed he could only have heard this over the radio or from the police control box.

A 2.59pm phone call saw Snig Hill ask the control box whether it wanted ambulances. At 3.05pm a call for Operation Support to Hillsborough was made – meaning as many officers should go there as possible.

Snig Hill requested a fleet of ambulances at 3.07pm. At 3.13pm there was a request for Snig Hill to contact the fire service and request hydraulic cutting equipment be sent to the ground. Edmundson didn’t recall the word “catastrophe”—a code to signify a major incident—being used.

He said the disaster began to be treated as a major incident at around 3.17pm when the fire brigade was requested.

Edmundson said assistant chief constable Walter Jackson was the most senior officer at Hillsborough on the day. “I would have expected the assistant chief constable to take immediate charge,” he said.

Richard Matthews QC showed the match operational order to the court. It said, “Chief Superintendent Duckenfield is in overall command at this event.”

Edmundson agreed with this. He said he didn’t think there would be any reference to Jackson in the order.

Duckenfield faces 95 charges of manslaughter by gross negligence. He cannot be charged over the death of the 96th victim, Tony Bland, as Bland died four years after the disaster.

Graham Mackrell, then Sheffield Wednesday club safety officer, faces two charges relating to safety breaches. Both deny the charges.

The trial continues.

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