The South Yorkshire police commander in charge on the day of the Hillsborough disaster has admitted that his failure to close a tunnel, which led to the already overcrowded Leppings Lane terrace “pens”, directly caused the deaths of 96 people.
David Duckenfield, the chief superintendent in command of the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest on 15 April 1989, also admitted that he “froze” when he ordered a large exit gate to be opened to allow hundreds of supporters in, to relieve congestion outside. He failed to foresee that the incoming fans would head down the tunnel leading to the crowded pens, so did not close it off.
In tense exchanges at the new inquests into the disaster with Paul Greaney QC, representing rank-and-file officers in the Police Federation, Duckenfield had earlier repeatedly denied that he “froze” or “bottled it” in the crucial minutes after being requested to order the exit gate be opened.
Finally, Greaney referred Duckenfield to evidence he gave last week to Christina Lambert QC, questioning him on behalf of the coroner, Sir John Goldring. Duckenfield said then that he failed to foresee where the incoming fans would go, because his mind went “blank”.
Greaney asked: “Mr Duckenfield, you know what was in your mind. I will ask you just one last time. Will you accept that, in fact, you froze?”
Duckenfield then replied: “Yes sir.”
He then agreed that if the supporters coming in through the opened exit gate had not been permitted to “flow down the tunnel” into the central pens, the deaths from the crush in that area would not have happened.
“Closing that tunnel would have prevented that and therefore would have prevented the tragedy?” Greaney asked.
“Yes, sir,” Duckenfield replied.
He accepted that he failed to recognise the need to close the tunnel, so he failed to take any steps to do so. Greaney asked him if he agreed that:
“That failure was the direct cause of the deaths of 96 persons in the Hillsborough tragedy?”
Duckenfield replied: “Yes, sir.”
About 150 people whose relatives died in the disaster almost exactly 26 years ago, were in the Warrington courtroom listening in silence, as Duckenfield made his admissions.
Greaney put to him that it was a simple matter to have foreseen where the supporters would go once allowed inside through the exit gate.
“Never mind a competent match commander [against whose standards Duckenfield has been asked to judge his own actions], it might only take a child of average intelligence to realise what the consequences of your decision might be.”
“I didn’t think of it on the day, sir, because of the pressure I was under,” Duckenfield said.
He has admitted he was inexperienced at football policing when he took charge of the match and the safety of the 54,000 people who attended, having been promoted to chief superintendent only 19 days earlier. His knowledge of Hillsborough was “woefully inadequate,” he admitted.
His own barrister, John Beggs QC, took Duckenfield through his inexperience, and the promotion for which he had not applied and that came “out of the blue”. Duckenfield agreed it was “obvious” he should not have been asked to command the FA Cup semi-final, but said that in the South Yorkshire police at that time: “You could not say no” to the chief constable, Peter Wright.
Beggs asked what the consequences would have been had he told Wright he should not command the match. “He wouldn’t have promoted me,” Duckenfield said.
After the disaster, Duckenfield said he found himself drinking “half tumblers of whiskey” in the morning while preparing for the official Taylor inquiry, was suspended from duty after Taylor reported, then retired on medical grounds in 1991 having been diagnosed with severe depression and post traumatic stress disorder.
“I want to ask whether it has been easy for the last five-and-a-half days to admit that your professional failings led to the deaths of 96 innocent men, women and children and the injuries to many more.”
“Sir, it has been the most difficult period of my life,” Duckenfield replied.
The inquests continues…
Source: Guardian Newspaper