10 Mar 2015

Hillsborough inquest: police chief gives evidence

The relatives of the 96 have fought long and hard for this real inquest instead of the previous whitewash – and they have waited long, so long, to hear David Duckenfield cross-examined.

He is at the eye of the Hillsborough storm. No question. This chief superintendent was match commander on 15 April 1989. Hillsborough happened on his watch.

Duckenfield arrives to give evidence to the Hillsborough Inquest in Warrington

And not long in the job either. Promoted to it just in March, apparently running Hillsborough – with it’s known  track record of crowd-congestion issues at the  Leppings Lane End on big matches and cup-ties – came with the job.

Thus he replaced, that fateful day, Chief Superintendent  Mole, as Duckenfield was now commander of F Division which covered the ground and all its policing issues.

Opening the inquest the coroner addressed the jury on this precise issue: “It was decided with that promotion that he should immediately replace Chief Superintendent Mole as the officer in charge of policing matches at Hillsborough.

“Whether that was a sensible decision may be something for you to have to consider.”

The fateful day

This inquest has now been running since March 31st last year – lacking thoroughness will not be an issue this time around it seems.

So the jury have already heard a bit about David Duckenfield’s actions that day.

He had briefed his team inside the ground at 10am on the day expecting fair but firm policing of any troublemakers. And it has to be said, however unpalatable this truth, that after the Heysel riot by Liverpool fans, the club’s away support had a reputation that would precede them with police forces.

As it turned out of course, Hillsborough was never about crowd behaviour – it was all about policing decisions and the layout of the ground.

The critical one being the decision to allow a gate towards the central tunnel onto the Leppings Lane terracing to be opened just before the game.

By that stage overcrowding outside the turnstiles was serious. Fans were arriving at the last minute and were boisterous and excited, but not a problem. Both factors are absolutely normal to any football match.

But this time the overcrowding grew critical. Three times the superintendent in control of the ground outside the Leppings Lane End is understood to have asked David Duckenfield to allow a gate to be opened to relieve the pressure of the crowd.

‘Open the gates’

At the third time of asking Superintendent Roger Marshall said if they don’t open a gate someone will be seriously hurt or killed.

At that point, in the control room, with direct sidelong oversight of the terracing but only CCTV of the outside of the ground where the crush was, it is said David Duckenfield  then spoke his thoughts aloud:

“If there’s likely to be serious injury or death I’ve no option but to open the gates – open the gates.”

The surge into the central tunnel from outside the ground into the central terrace pens then unfolded with catastrophic consequences because of the pitch-side fence.

That fence caused the fatalities – not the surge, not the opening of the gate, not the overcrowding and not the standing terrace. All were factors – the fence was fatal. Unable  to spill into  the pitch til it was too late – fans had nowhere to go as ever more surged down the terrace from above and behind, up the terrace from the tunnel entrance.

So the critical decision is as much the time it took for the pitch-side fence to be opened as much as the fateful decision to open the rear gate outside the ground in the first place.

Central witness

David Duckenfield was not the most senior officer at  the ground that day. Assistant Chief Constable Walter Jackson was also there but not in uniform. He was on call in case of another major policing incident that day and ready to give any advice to the Hillsborough team if need be.

At around. 3.15pm, with the match abandoned, the FA’s Graham Kelly went to the control room and asked Mr Duckenfield what was going on?

In his statement read to the jury Mr Kelly says Mr Duckenfield told him: “The Liverpool fans have forced a gate.”

The jury has also heard from various former police officers who allege that Mr Duckenfield was a senior freemason.

Above all else he is the central witness to this inquest when he goes into the box to give evidence which may well take longer than a day to complete.

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