Remembering the Hillsborough Disaster

Today, 15 April, is the anniversary of the Hillsborough Disaster.

For those unfamiliar with what happened, here are the key points taken from Wikipedia:

The Hillsborough disaster was a fatal human crush during a football match at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, England, on 15 April 1989. It occurred during an FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest in the two standing-only central pens in the Leppings Lane stand allocated to Liverpool supporters. Shortly before kick-off, in an attempt to ease overcrowding outside the entrance turnstiles, the police match commander David Duckenfield ordered exit gate C opened, leading to an influx of even more supporters to the pens. This led to a crowding in the pens and the crush. With 96 deaths and 766 injuries, it has the highest death toll in British sporting history. Ninety-four people died on the day; another person died in hospital days later and the final victim, who had been put into a persistent vegetative state by the crush and had never regained consciousness, died in 1993. In July 2021, a coroner ruled that Andrew Devine, who died 32 years after suffering severe and irreversible brain damage on the day, was the 97th victim. The match was abandoned but was restaged at Old Trafford in Manchester on 7 May 1989 with Liverpool winning and going on to win the FA Cup.

I still remember the afternoon of the match. Although at this time my main team was Shrewsbury Town, my local team, I still supported Liverpool as I had done throughout most of my childhood, as I have discussed before. It was a hot sunny afternoon and I was at my high school when the news started to come through that something was not right at the match. Like many others that day, I am ashamed to say that my first thought that it was a hooliganism problem again. And, of course, this is also the narrative that certain sections of the media, and indeed the government and other parts of the system, would try to get us to believe.

Five months after the disaster I was living in Sheffield, having started my studies at Sheffield University. I remember speaking to some of the people in Sheffield about the events of that day and I remember the sombre mood when Liverpool came back to the city for the first time since the disaster to play a league match at Hillsborough on 29 November that year. However, my main memory of that day was that as I was walking back from the University to my accommodation that there were a lot of people crowding outside the Children’s Hospital. It turned out that Princess Diana was visiting the hospital and was due to come out soon. I waited and she came over to shake hands with some people right in front of me (my memory from the whispers going around is that these were people she regularly engaged with) – had these been the days of smartphones, I would have had a great photo rather than a very blurred memory.

For the past 14 years I have been conducting research about disasters – particularly the JAL flight JL123 plane crash of 1985. Recently I wrote an article looking to understand why modifications happen to certain memorials for public transportation accidents – see Developing a Model to Explain Modifications to Public Transportation Accident Memorials. While the Hillsborough Disaster is not a public transportation accident, I did wonder whether the model that I developed in my article could be applied to other areas and disasters, such as the Hillsborough Disaster. Looking at the Wikipedia page, it is clear to see that there are a number of different memorials. I wonder what forces were at play to have these memorials established. As yet, I have not been to any of these, but I hope to go one day to pay my own respects to those who needlessly loss their lives.

On 11 April 2021, it was reported in the media that the support group for those impacted by the disaster would be folding and that there would be no more public memorial services on the anniversary. In terms of my research, this would be a clear pointer, if the model I developed can be applied to things other than public transportation accidents, that one should not expect any further modifications to memorials for the Hillsborough Disaster. On another level, that the decision for the group to fold came in 2021 is particularly pertinent. My article pointed to the significance of the bereavement process with memorialisation and the links with particular key Buddhist (as well as other) anniversaries. Using the Buddhist counting system (whereby the year that a death happens is counted as Year 1 rather than Year 0), 2021 is the 33rd anniversary of the Hillsborough Disaster. This is a particularly key anniversary in memorialisation in Buddhism. Indeed, as I noted in my book Dealing with Disaster in Japan, the official memorial services for the ANA flight NH58 ended with the 33rd anniversary. Although we are talking about two different countries, different types of disasters, different cultural and religious traditions, perhaps there is something much more universal about bereavement and its impact on behaviour than we realise or often give credit to. This was one of the points that I tried to make in my article Developing a Model to Explain Modifications to Public Transportation Accident Memorials.

Another aspect of the memorialisation of the Hillsborough Disaster was the release of a charity single – but I will discuss that and the related issues in another post one day.

To the victims of the disaster itself, may you rest in peace, and to their families and others caught up in the disaster, I wish you all well.

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