David Duckenfield made a “very brave” decision to open a gate and relieve overcrowding outside the Hillsborough football stadium, a court has heard.
Some 96 Liverpool fans died as a result of a crush in pens 3 and 4 at the Leppings Lane end of the stadium in 1989.
Duckenfield, who was police match commander on the day, faces 95 charges of manslaughter by gross negligence. He can’t 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 men deny the charges.
Robert McRobbie was a chief inspector on the day of the disaster and was in the police control box in the ground. The control box heard three requests to open a gate.
The court heard that Duckenfield sanctioned the third request and that McRobbie thought this was “very brave”.
He didn’t recall any other orders.
McRobbie said he observed before 2.30pm that “it seemed very busy in the Leppings Lane end”. He said when he saw fans going through a gate that was opened briefly to eject a fan “I assumed, wrongly I believe, that the gates had been forced and that’s the words I used.”
McRobbie agreed that “shock” and things he has learned since the disaster may affect his recollections. He agreed he might have forgotten things that were said in the police box.
Former police sergeant Michael Goddard, who was also in the police box, thought it was responsible for monitoring the numbers of fans in pens.
He could remember one occasion when the central tunnel to the pens was closed before the disaster. He thought this was in 1987.
He said it was done “to prevent any other spectators getting down the tunnel” because of how full pens 3 and 4 were.
Goddard recalled chief inspector Creaser entering the box at around midday and asking superintendent Murray how he wanted the pens “packing”. He recalled Murray saying let fans “find their own level, or words to that effect”.
Goddard said PC Guest in the club room gave the police box information about numbers coming through the turnstiles.
Goddard wasn’t aware of any discussion in the police box about the build-up of fans outside the turnstiles. He didn’t recall any discussion about the consequences of opening the gate.
Goddard agreed that those in the control box did their best to respond to the disaster. He agreed it can be difficult to remember timings of events and who said what.
Duckenfield was appointed match commander not long before the disaster.
Goddard said there was no formal police training for working at matches. He said it would be “an impossible learning curve” for someone appointed match commander for the first time.
Goddard agreed that those in the control box were “totally reliant” on others passing them information from the ground. He suggested that Duckenfield was effectively a “spectator”.
He wasn’t aware of anyone contacting the control box about issues at the turnstiles before the request for gates to be opened.
Goddard agreed that the first sign something unusual was happening was at 2.30pm when PC Bichard referred to the size of the crowd outside the turnstiles. He agreed it took a “little while” for those in the control box to realise what was happening.
Goddard understood Duckenfield to be in overall command on the day of the disaster.
He had previously said the control box had “ample” resources to deal with issues. He couldn’t recall anyone in command giving any order or direction between 2.30pm and just after 2.50pm.
Goddard said contingency plans could have been made between the first and third requests to open the gates. He said there was “certainly time” for Duckenfield to ask Goddard to try and communicate with officers in the Leppings Lane concourse.
He agreed there was time to look from the control box to see the state of the pens.
Liverpool fan Frederick Eccleston attended the semi-final at Hillsborough in 1988 and 1989. He said that in 1988 police and stewards had stopped him going down the tunnel into pens 3 and 4 because they were full.
Fiona Nicol was a police officer on duty at Hillsborough during the disaster. She recalled being asked to stand in front of the central tunnel at a match before the disaster.
She was told not to let fans through it. The court heard this was a couple of years earlier, and that a constable told her to do it. She didn’t know where the order came from.
The trial continues.