LONDON — Victims of Britain’s worst-ever sporting disaster received an official apology and a measure of vindication Wednesday after the release of secret files showing that police tried to cover up their bungled response by shifting blame onto the 96 people who lost their lives in an overcrowded soccer stadium 23 years ago.
Hundreds of thousands of pages of documents contain evidence that authorities systematically deflected attention from their own failings by smearing the reputations of those who died at the Hillsborough stadium, in the city of Sheffield, on April 15, 1989. Most of the victims, fans of the Liverpool team, were crushed to death in a standing-only section that was already full when police herded more spectators into the fenced-in enclosure.
The tragedy, and photos of clearly suffering victims squeezed against the metal fence, stunned Britain. Shock turned to disgust amid reports that many of the victims were drunk, had histories of violent behavior and even urinated on officers and medical personnel who were helping the injured.
But those reports turned out to be false, part of a deliberate disinformation campaign by the South Yorkshire police force. In fact, the police themselves and the emergency services showed poor coordination and mounted an inadequate and delayed response to the unfolding catastrophe, according to a report by an independent panel that studied the newly released files.
“These families have suffered a double injustice: the injustice of the appalling events … and then the injustice of the denigration of the deceased, that they were somehow at fault in their own deaths,” Cameron said. “What happened that day and since was wrong.”
The families, who have campaigned for two decades to see the truth come out, expressed both relief and anger.
“We’ve been accused of being vengeful, spiteful, looking for a scapegoat, looking for compensation, all of which is a total load of rubbish,” said Trevor Hicks of the Hillsborough Families Support Group. “We are vindicated in our search for the truth.”
Perhaps most painful was evidence suggesting that nearly half of the victims did not die as quickly as the official inquest concluded they had, although it was difficult to say with certainty whether any could have survived even if proper medical attention had been administered in time.
Britain’s bestselling daily tabloid, the Sun, came in for particular censure for spreading the police’s false claims under the front-page banner headline “The Truth” a few days after the accident. The paper’s coverage helped harden public opinion against the victims, many of whom were wrongly portrayed as soccer hooligans.
Kelvin MacKenzie, editor at the time, issued an apology Wednesday for the provocative headline.
“It has taken more than two decades, 400,000 documents and a two-year inquiry to discover to my horror that it would have been far more accurate had I written the headline ‘The Lies’ rather than ‘The Truth,’” MacKenzie said. “I published in good faith and I am sorry that it was so wrong.”
No police or government official has faced charges connected to the disaster. It’s unclear whether that will change in light of the files disclosed Wednesday.
Photo: British Prime Minister David Cameron's apology to the families of 96 people killed in 1989 at the Hillsborough soccer stadium is watched on a television screen in Liverpool's Anglican Cathedral. Credit: Peter Byrne / AFP/Getty Images