My failings - by Hillsborough police chief whose mistake killed 96 fans

  • Duckenfield denies his mindset was focused on hooliganism rather than fans’ safety
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HILLSBOROUGH police chief David Duckenfield has told the jury into the inquests of 96 Liverpool fans that he was “a new and inexperienced match commander” faced with “unimaginably difficult and fast-moving circumstances”.

He added he was working to “a flawed operational (match) order” and had “not envisaged or wished for death or injury to a single football supporter” in the central pens of the Leppings Lane terrace at the fateful FA Cup semi-final on April 15, 1989 - Britain’s worst sporting disaster.

Yesterday, Mr Duckenfield, 70, agreed that his failure to close the tunnel leading to those pens was the “direct cause” of the tragedy after he had just ordered the opening of an exit gate at the ground to relieve congestion at the Leppings Lane turnstiles.

The circumstances of that failure was outlined by his barrister today as the retired chief superintendent from South Yorkshire Police gave evidence for a seventh day at the hearing in Warrington.

Summing up his questioning of his client, John Beggs QC, said to Mr Duckenfield: “In front of this jury, Mr Duckenfield, many family members in court, and many many lawyers and journalists, you have admitted, haven’t you, some very serious professional failures?”

“Yes, sir,” he replied.

Former chief superintendent David Duckenfield (front) is escorted in to the Hillsborough Inquest in Warrington

Former chief superintendent David Duckenfield (front) is escorted in to the Hillsborough Inquest in Warrington

Mr Beggs said: “Do you agree that those serious failures were in circumstances where first you were new and inexperienced?”

The witness said: “Yes, sir.”

His barrister continued: “Were you working to what we now know was a flawed operational order?”

Mr Duckenfield said: “Yes, sir.”

You bottled it. You panicked and you failed to take the action that you knew needed to be taken to avoid consequences that you had foreseen.

Paul Greaney QC

Mr Beggs asked: “Were you at least from 2.30pm onwards, if not earlier, under intense pressure?”

Mr Duckenfield repeated: “Yes, sir.”

Mr Beggs said: “Were you working in unimaginably difficult and fast-moving circumstances?”

Mr Duckenfield said again: “Yes, sir.”

The gate at Hillsborough through which the bulk of the fans in the Liverpool enclosure entered.

The gate at Hillsborough through which the bulk of the fans in the Liverpool enclosure entered.

Mr Beggs concluded: “When you went to Hillsborough on the morning of April 15 1989 was the very last outcome that you envisaged or wished for was death or injury to a single football supporter in those central pens?”

Mr Duckenfield said: “I did not want that at all, sir.”

Mr Duckenfield was promoted 19 days before the disaster and inherited the role of match commander at Sheffield Wednesday’s ground for the sell-out tie against Nottingham Forest - his first game in overall charge.

He told his barrister that on and leading up April 15 he did not ignore any advice given by experienced officers but he accepted as match commander that “the buck stops with me”.

Mr Beggs said it had been suggested by a number of barristers at the inquests that Mr Duckenfield alone should bear responsibility for the tragedy.

Mr Duckenfield agreed he had nothing to do with previous turnstile “failures” at Sheffield Wednesday and no one had advised him about them.

Views of the Hillsborough football ground shown at the inquests.

Views of the Hillsborough football ground shown at the inquests.

He had no say on Liverpool being awarded the smaller end of the ground for the match with just 23 turnstiles.

In reality, he had “inherited” the police operation for the match.

He also had nothing to do with signage at the ground or previous decisions to install perimeter fences and radial fences, its architectural features or any breaches of stadium safety guidance on crush barrier heights.

Mr Beggs asked: “If supporters turned up later in 1989 than in 1988, for whatever reason, was that something with which you had any control?”

“No sir, “ said Mr Duckenfield.

Mr Beggs said: “The reality is this, Mr Duckenfield, your main focus on that day was crowd segregation?”

“Yes sir,” said Mr Duckenfield.

Mr Beggs continued: “And indeed the prevention of public disorder?”

Mr Duckenfield said: “Yes, sir.”

Mr Beggs: “Is the tragic reality, Mr Duckenfield, that you were not contemplating that any crisis would be one of crushing?”

Mr Duckenfield: “No, sir.”

Mr Beggs: “Again the reality was that your focus in relation to safety was segregation?”

“It was sir,” replied the witness.

He agreed he had not monitored crowds in pens at capacity games at Hillsborough before.

Mr Beggs asked: “Had you received any kind of training or instruction in monitoring of pens?”

Mr Duckenfield said: “No, sir.”

Mr Beggs said: “Did you in fact know in April 1989 how to safely gauge crowd density?”

“No sir,” he replied.

Mr Duckenfield said that none of his four experienced colleagues in the police control box on the day gave him any hints on how to do so and none pointed out any problems with crown density.

He added that no officers at ground level sent any messages to suggest there were density problems, and that none of the Sheffield Wednesday directors and VIPs who “had been to the ground many times before” had pointed out to him that the terraces looked overcrowded.

No message of concern was passed from the club’s CCTV control room which also had access to numbers of fans coming through the turnstiles, he added.

Mr Beggs said: “Putting it in summation, Mr Duckenfield, prior to kick-off did any message come into the control box from any source at all to you that there was or may be problems with how those central pens were filling?”

Mr Duckenfield replied: “No, sir.”

Mr Beggs said: “You in fact accept that you failed effectively to monitor those pens, don’t you?”

The witness replied: “Yes, sir.”

His barrister continued: “Is it the position that you really didn’t appreciate that they were in fact overcrowded?”

“That is correct, sir,” said Mr Duckenfield.

Mr Beggs said: “You know with the benefit of hindsight you were plainly wrong, you knew they were overcrowded by 3pm. You accept that?”

Mr Duckenfield said: “I do, sir.”

Mr Beggs asked: “Had you realised those central pens were overcrowded such as to threaten life or limb, would you have taken action?”

Mr Duckenfield replied: “I would, sir.”

His barrister said: “Is that because you would then have realised that people might have been crushed with horrific consequences?”

Mr Duckenfield said: “Yes, sir.”

He said that as early as 2.15pm he did not realise there were congestion problems at the Leppings Lane turnstiles and if he had anticipated large crowds arriving after 2.30pm, he would have directed additional officers to go there.

The jury has heard that at about 2.30pm he asked now-dead colleague Superintendent Bernard Murray whether fans would get into the match in time for kick-off and he was told they would.

Mr Beggs asked Mr Duckenfield: “Did you have any basis at the time for doubting Mr Murray’s judgment?”

Mr Duckenfield replied: “No sir.”

Mr Beggs said: “You have already told us that he was far more experienced than you. He had been the ground commander the previous year.”

Mr Duckenfield said: “Yes, sir.”

At around that time Mr Duckenfield did order a Tannoy announcement be made to the terraces, inviting supporters to move along and spread out, but after that did not consider delaying the kick-off.

Addressing the moment when Mr Duckenfield opened exit gate C at 2.52pm, which led to 2,000 fans entering and many going to the central pens, he said he felt he had “no choice” when a superintendent outside the turnstiles made his “stark plea” to open the gates.

Mr Beggs asked: “Did any other officer (in the control box) say ‘Look guv’nor, look boss, look David, we must not do that, we must not open the gates’.”

Mr Duckenfield said: “No, sir.”

Mr Beggs continued: “More importantly, did any of the four of them say ‘Open the gates but before you do so, you must close the central tunnel’?”

Mr Duckenfield replied: “No one said anything.”

Mr Beggs said: “In one sentence, what were you trying to achieve?”

Mr Duckenfield said: “To save lives, sir.”

Mr Beggs said: “Is the tragic reality, as you have said many times before, that it simply did not cross your mind to where the supporters would go upon entering the concourse?”

He replied: “Yes, sir.”

The barrister said: “Is it also right that if anyone else did think about that, they certainly did not raise it with you?”

He replied: “Yes, sir.”

Mr Duckenfield was asked to describe his mood the following day after the disaster when he met chief constable Peter Wright.

He told the jury: “In one word, sir, sombre ... deflated.”

He went on to say he had never told any police officer how they should record the events of April 15 1989.

Mr Beggs asked: “Did you at any stage even encourage any other police officer or police civilians to change his or her statement?”

He said: “No, sir.”

Mr Beggs went on: “Did you change the content of the statement that the jury know was made by you on or before May 3 1989?”

He said: “No, sir.”

Mr Beggs said: “Did anyone ever ask you to change your statement?”

He said: “No, sir.”

Mr Beggs said: “It has been suggested by some of the barristers sitting in front of me there was some conspiracy to interfere with a fair collection of evidence. Did you have any part in that?”

He said: “None at all, sir.”

Mr Beggs said: “Did you know anything about it?”

Mr Duckenfield replied: “I did not.”

He confirmed he had no role in the subsequent investigation by West Midlands Police into the tragedy and had no part either in the direction of the force’s case at Lord Justice Taylor’s inquiry.

The father of one of the Hillsborough victims briefly confronted Mr Duckenfield when he left the court after he completed his evidence.

Barry Devonside’s son, Christopher, 18, died in the tragedy.

Next to give evidence was retired chief superintendent Douglas Hopkins who has been instructed by Coroner Lord Justice Goldring to provide expert reports and evidence on the background strategy and tactics of policing in the late 1980s.

A former match commander at Arsenal’s Highbury stadium between 1987 and 1991, Mr Hopkins said he retired from the police service in 1993 but went on work for the Football Association for 20 years in advising of risks at football matches involving the England national team both home and abroad.

He agreed that in 1989 many football grounds around the country were “somewhat antiquated”.

He said: “Most football grounds were built at the turn of the century.”

Strict segregation was needed in the 1980s to deal with the problem of hooliganism, he said.

He added that pitch invasions were “rare” but “problematic when they happened”.

Mr Hopkins said: “Liverpool supporters did not have a large hooligan group.

“They were a boisterous, passionate side. I only ever policed them for normal league matches as medium risk.”

The jury was then shown a compilation of scenes of disorder at various football matches in the 1980s including Luton Town versus Millwall in 1985, Birmingham City versus Leeds United in 1985 and Chelsea versus Middlesbrough in 1988.

The coroner told the jury that no-one was suggesting that Hillsborough was caused by hooliganism of the type depicted in the videos.

Mr Hopkins said that eight stadiums at the time could host a FA Cup semi-final and that Hillsborough compared “very favourably” to other grounds in the country.

He explained it was an “advanced stadium” in that it had a police control room and “excellent” CCTV.

The court has heard that Liverpool had the smaller allocation of just more than 24,000 for the 1989 tie as opposed to Nottingham Forest’s allocation of just under 30,000.

Mr Hopkins considered it was appropriate that allocations could be decided on the segregation of fans on their approach to a stadium.

But he said an alternative to putting Liverpool fans at the west end of the ground was to divide the north and south stands which would have given them a bigger allocation and less pressure on the Leppings Lane turnstiles.

He said: “I think the big challenge is having 24,000 people going through 23 turnstiles, particularly 10,100 people going through seven turnstiles.”

Asked about the funnel-type shape of the Leppings Lane turnstile area, he said: “If you allow people en masse into that area, they are bound to get compressed. It is always difficult to police people from the rear.”

He added: “You have got to have some form of control before the approach to the turnstiles and you also want the turnstiles working at maximum capacity, which is providing a steady flow.”

The hearing continues tomorrow when Mr Hopkins will continue to give evidence.

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Full coverage from The Yorkshire Post

Injured fans lie on advertising boards which were used as makeshift stretchers.

Injured fans lie on advertising boards which were used as makeshift stretchers.

The crush outside the Hillsborough football ground

The crush outside the Hillsborough football ground

Chief Supt David Duckenfield who was in charge at Hillsborough on the day of the disaster.

Chief Supt David Duckenfield who was in charge at Hillsborough on the day of the disaster.

Views of the Hillsborough football ground shown at the inquests.

Views of the Hillsborough football ground shown at the inquests.

Views of the Hillsborough football ground shown at the inquests.

Views of the Hillsborough football ground shown at the inquests.

Views of the Hillsborough football ground shown at the inquests.

Views of the Hillsborough football ground shown at the inquests.

Views of the Hillsborough football ground shown at the inquests.

Views of the Hillsborough football ground shown at the inquests.