Chapter 4: Emergency response and aftermath: 'routinely requested to attend'

Relatives, friends and the bereaved

2.4.149 By 4.30pm the last of the injured had been taken to hospital and the remaining uninjured fans were leaving the stadium. By this time all were aware that a tragedy had occurred, with many dead and injured. The disaster had also been viewed by millions via television and transmitted world-wide by radio broadcast. At the stadium hundreds of fans were desperate to find information about friends and relatives, and to contact their relatives and friends to let them know they had survived. Thousands of relatives, friends and colleagues at home were fraught with anxiety.

2.4.150 In 1989 communication depended on telephone land lines and these were in short supply. Rapidly they became overloaded. Many relatives and friends set off from Liverpool and other destinations to travel to Sheffield in their quest for information, while those already in the city headed for the hospitals and police stations.

2.4.151 In the gymnasium, freed from the chaos of dealing with multiple casualties, proceedings began to be coordinated more efficiently. Detective Chief Superintendent Terence Addis arrived from Police HQ and, having been informed by D/Supt McKay of the temporary mortuary in the gymnasium, he took control of the police operation there.

2.4.152 He liaised with DCAO Hopkins. There were 82 bodies in an area partitioned by sheets hung from netting. Det C/Supt Addis stated:

I ascertained that an instruction had been given for one Police Officer to stay with each body and that officers had been despatched to the Northern General Hospital and the Royal Hallamshire Hospital in order to set up casualty bureau liaison units, obtain details of deaths and casualties and deal with relatives and other enquiries at those locations ... I also ascertained that the casualty bureau at Ecclesfield Training Centre was being implemented.[65]

2.4.153 The initial plan was that the deceased would be transported to the hospital mortuaries and the Medico-Legal Centre. Thus NGH, RHH and Barnsley District General Hospital were placed on standby. At approximately 5.00pm, however, Det C/Supt Addis was informed that the Coroner 'had instructed that bodies should not be removed from the temporary mortuary until such time as they had been photographed in situ and their identities confirmed'.

2.4.154 He 'then gave instructions for relatives and friends of the deceased, who had congregated outside the temporary mortuary, to be transported to Hammerton Road Police Station where suitable accommodation could be found for them pending arrangements for identification purposes'.

2.4.155 At 6.45pm, the Coroner arrived at the stadium, with the senior pathologist from the Medico-Legal Centre (Professor Alan Usher) and two other pathologists. There they met Det C/Supt Addis and agreed the identification procedure. All bodies were to remain in the gymnasium, along with 12 that were to be returned from NGH or RHH.

2.4.156 It was decided that a Polaroid photograph would be taken of each of the deceased. Relatives and close friends would then be shown into an entrance area adjoining the gymnasium, where the photographs would be displayed on screens. On recognition, the corresponding body would be brought to the viewing area at the entrance to the gymnasium to confirm identification.

2.4.157 The Coroner considered that the use of Polaroid photographs was a solution to overcoming the limitations of the temporary mortuary: 'It was agreed that all the unidentified dead could be photographed with poloroid [sic] cameras and that their photographs would be appropriately numbered and displayed on a board, for viewing by relatives, so that they could pick out their own deceased and not have the trauma of having to walk between the bodies, looking for their loved one'.[66] 

2.4.158 Preparations for this identification process were not completed and approved by the Coroner until 9.15pm. During this time, friends and relatives had arrived in considerable numbers to search for their missing loved ones and needed somewhere to wait.

2.4.159 D/Supt McKay had left the gymnasium shortly after Det C/Supt Addis's arrival and returned to Hammerton Road Police Station: 'On arrival at Hammerton Road I found the place under virtual siege. Liverpool supporters were wanting to make urgent enquiries, many were standing around not knowing what to do and someone had put out a call for all off-duty social workers to report to Hammerton Road and there were many social workers'.[67] 

2.4.160 Members of the clergy also arrived at Hammerton Road offering help, including the local vicar and the Archdeacon of Sheffield who subsequently gave an account of his experiences to a symposium organised by the Regional Health Authority:

The police were not yet organised, but asked us if there was anywhere immediately adjacent which could be used as a Relatives Reception Centre. The vicar suggested the boys' club opposite the Police Station, which we opened up. It was one of those youth centres that had been ravaged by years of aggressive wear; one accessible telephone, poor toilets, not enough chairs and tables, a large hall and a number of other rooms off narrow stairways. More chairs had to be fetched, but there was no way of making the drab surroundings any more welcoming. Social Services had also arrived and their senior officer and I recognised that it was up to us to try and induce some order out of the impending chaos.[68]

2.4.161 The impending chaos was, in part, a consequence of an influx of people offering help:

 Our first major problem was a broadcast appeal for helpers - social workers and others to come to the boys club. At the same time as the first enquiring friends and relatives were arriving, hordes of volunteers arrived, social workers, psychiatrists, probation officers, bereavement counsellors and people of good-will. Clergy were also beginning to become over-abundant. Looking after those in need, giving them space and support, was in danger of becoming secondary to managing the log-jam of helpers ... The local clergy found that their access to telephones at local vicarages was an asset, and took people there to ring relatives. A psychiatric team took over one room to do work with the bereaved, but were frustrated for lack of clients. What the uncertain enquirer wanted was a quiet supportive relationship that asked nothing of them.[69]

Treatment of the bereaved

2.4.162 Lack of information also contributed to the impending chaos. At Hammerton Road Police Station, D/Supt McKay was informed that 'all numbers to the Casualty Bureau had already gone out over the radio, jamming all of the lines, and as a result there was to be no police contact by telephone with the Bureau for many hours'.[70] 

2.4.163 Faced with an interminable wait in the dour surroundings of the Boys' Club, and unable to discover what was being planned, some relatives went to the hospitals, adding to the throngs already occupying the staff canteens at NGH and RHH. Eventually, those waiting were informed that all bodies were held at the gymnasium, and identification would begin there at 9.30pm. The process of transporting relatives and friends from the Boys' Club to the gymnasium began.

2.4.164 At the gymnasium, initially they queued outside. Later they were accommodated elsewhere in the gymnasium. Some faced long waits periodically punctuated by clearly audible cries of distress from those viewing the bodies of their loved ones and, for the first time, experiencing the certain knowledge of their loss.

2.4.165 Many of the bereaved wished to hold or touch their loved ones. Some were granted their wish, albeit briefly, but many were refused. They were told that the body was the property of the Coroner.

2.4.166 They were then taken quickly to another area of the gymnasium to be questioned by police officers, envisaged by the Coroner as merely confirming the identification:  'As soon as this identification had been positively done the officer responsible for that body would accompany the identifier and take a written statement from them, giving the identification'.[71]

2.4.167 As communicated by Det C/Supt Addis, this simple confirmation became something more: 'If a positive identification ensured [sic], then the Police Officer would accompany the person identifying the body to a nearby area where they would be joined by a detective and details of identification, medical background of the deceased, where possible, and the details of the [sic] surrounding the death, if known, would be obtained in statement form'.[72] 

2.4.168 The reality experienced by many relatives and friends, however, exceeded both of these versions. Questioning often focused on the habits and behaviour of the deceased, particularly their drinking patterns and whether they had consumed alcohol on the way to the match. As mentioned in Part 1, the bereaved considered the process intrusive and lacking sympathy, but the more significant context eventually became clear.

2.4.169 As bodies were identified, they were transported to the Medico-Legal Centre. Some relatives had difficulty recognising their loved ones from the photographs. The Polaroid prints were poor quality. In some cases faces were swollen as a result of the intense pressure in the pens.

2.4.170 After an agonisingly long night, the decision was taken to transfer 20 bodies that remained unidentified at the gymnasium to the Medico-Legal Centre. All were transported by 5.30am on the Sunday. The process of identification continued at the Medico-Legal Centre. Although purpose-designed to accommodate up to 100 bodies in the event of a major disaster, the Centre lacked the facilities to receive large numbers of friends and relatives.

2.4.171 A glass window separated mourners from their loved ones and this proved to be a serious and painful barrier for relatives.[73]  Relatives visiting the Medico-Legal Centre faced a prolonged period of uncertainty, hoping that their loved one was not among the dead but was elsewhere, possibly in hospital: 'People who had been desperately seeking survivors at the hospitals were arriving to find their worst fears confirmed. Hopes dashed were sometimes the most difficult to handle'.[74]

2.4.172 It is clear from the documentation that many of those in positions of responsibility attempted to help the bereaved despite the makeshift arrangements and unsatisfactory surroundings. Yet it is also clear that sympathy and understanding were not universal. The processing and questioning of relatives and friends in the immediate aftermath were regularly perceived as crass and insensitive. This added significantly to their distress.

2.4.173 The use of the gymnasium as a temporary mortuary and the display of Polaroid photographs were, and remain, issues of concern for bereaved families, as was the decision taken at this time to test alcohol levels in the deceased.

2.4.174 While it appears that no contemporaneous notes exist to explain these decisions, Dr Stefan Popper, the South Yorkshire West District Coroner, subsequently addressed the issues.[75] Answering criticisms regarding the appropriateness of the temporary mortuary he stated that 'having that gymnasium there was exceedingly fortunate ... I personally do not have any criticism with that'. The gymnasium was used because 'we wanted everyone in one place ... I take responsibility ... for that'.

2.4.175 In fact, the return of bodies to the gymnasium from the hospitals enabled relatives to view a full set of photographs and avoided giving false hope by displaying an incomplete set. Dr Popper also rejected criticism of the decision to use and display Polaroid photographs for identification. This had been 'done on my authorisation'. Responding to why blood alcohol samples had been taken and recorded, he was equally adamant: 'The answer is because I authorised it'.

[65] Witness Statement of Detective Chief Superintendent Terence Addis, South Yorkshire Police, SYP000081480001, pp4-5.
[66] File of papers relating to the procedures of the Resumed Inquest and Post Mortems, part 1, SYC000001360001, p242. 
[67] Witness Statement of Detective Superintendent Graham McKay, South Yorkshire Police, SYP000008020001, p18. 
[68] Report of Hillsborough Symposium, 19 July 1990, JWR000000250001, p195.  
[69] Report of Hillsborough Symposium, 19 July 1990, JWR000000250001, p196. 
[70] Witness Statement of Detective Superintendent Graham McKay, South Yorkshire Police, SYP000008020001, p19. 
[71] File of papers relating to the procedures of the Resumed Inquest and Post Mortems, part 1, SYC000001360001, p243.  
[72] Witness Statement of Detective Chief Superintendent Terence Addis, South Yorkshire Police, SYP000081480001, p6. 
[73] Report of Hillsborough Symposium, 19 July 1990, JWR000000250001, p197.   
[74] Report of Hillsborough Symposium, 19 July 1990, JWR000000250001, p198.
[75] Inquest Transcript, 18 April 1990, day 1 am, SYC000109270001, pp30-31.