A hospital flooded with casualties arriving from the 1989 Hillsborough disaster was “on the back foot” from the start because other emergency services headquarters had not informed them a major incident had been declared, the inquests into the deaths of 96 Liverpool fans has heard.
Sheffield Northern General Hospital’s then senior consultant in A&E told the hearing that preparations were still being put in place to cope with the disaster on April 15 as patients arrived through the doors in large numbers.
It led to the hospital putting its own emergency plan into action shortly after the first patient arrived at 3.27pm as staff were informed of the unfolding situation at the football ground by ambulance crews.
A switchboard operator at Northern General took a call from the South Yorkshire Police operations room at 3.14pm who was told: “It’s just to inform you there has been an accident at Hillsborough football ground and to put you on standby for casualties. There is quite a few people seriously injured apparently.”
Between 3.13pm and 3.22pm, the jury was told, there were numerous mentions of a “major incident” in communications from South Yorkshire Metropolitan Ambulance Service (SYMAS) headquarters and that two overspill hospitals, Barnsley and Rotherham, had been informed directly of the development.
However the Northern General - the main receiving hospital for the casualties - was at no point told the same information from SYMAS HQ.
Dr James Wardrope said: “Had the hospital received a formal notification at 3.14pm then the switchboard would have implemented the major incident plan and they would have undertaken the procedures set out in that plan for their area.
“The first priority would be to inform key areas such as the emergency department to call in more staff...I would see if they had any more information about the nature of the severity of the casualties that we were receiving.
“We would be clearing patients, setting out extra resuscitation points, calling in extra staff and calling in staff from the rest of the hospital.”
He said it would have perhaps meant four or five more doctors could have been available to man the resuscitation area.
Dr Wardrope was on call on the day and was informed on the phone at about 3.20pm by a hospital charge nurse that they had been put on standby due to “some type of incident” at Hillsborough.
He arrived at the hospital just after 3.30pm and noticed an “unusual number” of ambulances outside.
Christina Lambert QC, counsel for the inquest, asked the doctor to give a sense of the numbers that were arriving.
He replied, with his voice breaking, that seriously ill patients were coming in “large numbers”.
He said: “Ambulances were sometimes bringing two, three or even, in one documented case, four seriously ill patients at once.”
Dr Wardrope told the hearing in Warrington that 56 patients were admitted within a hour and that 88 casualties came through the doors on the day.
Eleven were either pronounced dead or died in the A&E department.
He told Miss Lambert that he did not feel there were sufficient numbers of staff at his disposal initially to cope with the casualty numbers.
He said: “My general observation is that at the start we did not have a chance to prepare the department or the hospital properly.
“We were already receiving seriously injured casualties when the major incident was called by the A&E department and that put us on the back foot.”
He said as opposed to “ready steady go” in a drill situation, they were “go, go, go”.
Jo Delahunty QC, representing some of the bereaved families, asked the consultant: “You did not have the resources to respond to the numbers of patients that were arriving in such a short space of time. The situation was avoidable?”
He replied: “I don’t think I have got full knowledge of all of the facts of what happened to express an expert opinion on this case and making a judgment I think is perhaps a matter for the jury.”
Earlier Dr Wardrope said at one point he made the decision not to triage some patients to the resuscitation room because it was “more than full” and he had heard a nurse say they were being sent dead patients.
Instead, four or five people who had suffered cardiac arrests were sent to a temporary mortuary.
Some 71 casualties were also taken to Sheffield’s Royal Hallamshire Hospital as the Northern General reached capacity, the inquests heard.
Jenni Richards QC, for Yorkshire Ambulance Service (formerly SYMAS), said that SYMAS was told by South Yorkshire Police that the police would notify both Northern General and the Royal Hallamshire that a major incident was under way and that SYMAS would inform Barnsley and Rotherham hospitals.
Dr Wardrope will return at a later date in the inquests to give evidence about the individual deaths.
Roger Morley, assistant divisional officer for SYMAS in 1989, told the inquests he arrived at Hillsborough at about 3.23pm but did not know it was a major incident en route.
He told the court: “It was just total mayhem. We pulled in through the gate, there was police officers on horses, there was police vehicles, there was people running up the slope with advertising hoardings with casualties laid on them,
“There were casualties lying on the floor in front of us, towards the first aid room. There was fans screaming. It was just terrible, it really was.”
Mr Morley said he dealt with the arrival of ambulances to the ground and that the first few vehicles that came in were left by their crews to attend casualties but were stripped of equipment when they returned.
In a statement he said some fans were distraught and had “manhandled” him while others were fighting each other while vehicles were moving in and out of the ground.
He said he thought there were fatalities about 10 minutes after he had arrived.
The inquest into the country’s worst ever sporting disaster, which was due to continue today, is not expected to finish until 2016.