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I was at the Hillsborough disaster and still have survivor’s guilt over it

  • April 15, 2021

File photo dated 15/04/89 of Liverpool fans at Hillsborough, trying to escape severe overcrowding during the FA Cup semi-final football match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. PA Photo. Issue date: Thursday November 28, 2019. Hillsborough match commander David Duckenfield has been found not guilty at Preston Crown Court of the gross negligence manslaughter of 95 Liverpool fans who died at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final. See PA story COURTS Hillsborough. Photo credit should read: David Giles/PA Wire
I’ll never forget watching the events of 15 April 1989 unfold (Picture: David Giles/PA Wire)

Even half an hour before kickoff, the Liverpool end at Hillsborough Stadium looked wrong from where I was sitting on the other side of the pitch.

The central, fenced pens behind the goal were much more heavily-populated than those at the sides.

When Liverpool’s Peter Beardsley hit the bar four minutes into the game, it triggered a crowd surge – where people began to be crushed to death.

Some fans managed to escape and came onto the pitch, while the catcalls from Forest fans – who initially suspected crowd trouble – rang out loud. Many didn’t make it out alive that day, with 96 deaths and hundreds more injured.

It would be years before I’d heal – or even recognise – the scars that the trauma of watching the Hillsborough disaster had left.

Among those feelings was survivor guilt – that it could, or even should, have been me instead; or a sense of shame from not being able to do something to help those who needed it.

I’ll never forget watching the events of 15 April 1989 unfold.


Nigel Huddleston shot by Nicole Huddleston
I’ll never forget watching the events of 15 April 1989 unfold (Picture: Nicole Huddleston)

The goal net being taken down by Liverpool fans and police officers to ease access to the centre of the crush, while dozens of other police formed a chain across the halfway line to prevent a rush of Liverpool supporters on the Forest end. Countless people gasping for their lives or helping those who were.

Initially, there was one lone, pathetic ambulance, and a handful of Forest supporters able to scale the perimeter fence to help Liverpool fans carry the dead and injured on makeshift stretchers fashioned from advertising hoardings.

I can still feel the heat and smell the diesel fumes of a railway shuttle bus that I sat on outside the ground that never moved because of the emergency vehicles blocking its way. The queues of supporters outside the houses of strangers letting them call home – in pre-mobile phone days – to tell loved ones that they were OK.

I now look back with a stew of emotions: anger that it was allowed it to happen; horror at the carnage and the chaos; hope in those small acts of kindness between strangers.

I remembered so much and so clearly that Hillsborough news reports, documentaries or dramatisations in subsequent years brought overwhelming flashbacks.

Then came the inquest verdict and I could no longer deny how witnessing the events unfold contributed to bouts of depression, heavy drinking, outbursts of anger and all-consuming sadness.

On 26 April 2016, a British court returned a verdict of unlawful killing. After exit gates were opened by the police to relieve crowd pressure outside the ground, it led to a surge of people into already full pens behind the goal at the Leppings Lane end of the ground.


File photo dated 15/04/89 of a young Liverpool fan sitting on the terraces of Hillsborough with his head in his hands following the disaster at the FA Cup Semi Final game between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest in which 96 men, women and children died. Liverpool fan Dave Roland, who was captured in this poignant image in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster, has died after contracting coronavirus, his family have said. PA Photo. Issue date: Wednesday April 15, 2020. See PA story HEALTH Coronavirus Hillsborough. Photo credit should read: John Giles/PA Wire
In the end, it didn’t take much to put some things right (Picture: John Giles/PA Wire)

It took 27 years and 11 days for this version of events to be officially accepted when the jury in a second inquest into the deaths made the conclusion, after an unfaltering campaign by the Hillsborough Family Support Group.

In the intervening years, Liverpool supporters had been falsely accused of causing the disaster and it had emerged that scores of witness statements had been altered to deflect blame from South Yorkshire Police.

That very same day of the inquest verdict, I’d pored over the initial news reports and reactions from the victims’ families, then had a shouting fit at my teenage daughter for some relatively trivial misdemeanour.

Before I knew it, I was sitting down sobbing as decades of guilt, anger and grief came pouring out. One week later, I sat in front of a counsellor for the first time to heal the scars that the trauma of Hillsborough had left.

With no handbook on how to find help for trauma suffered in extraordinary circumstances decades ago, I googled ‘PTSD counsellors’ in my local area and contacted someone whose specialism was very different, but was happy to help. A simple step that proved life-changing.

In the end, it didn’t take much to put some things right.

My counsellor was able to suggest some simple exercises that put mental distance between now and then whenever feelings of being swamped by flashbacks occur – like visualising a favourite place in minute detail or making a mental list of life events such as house moves or buying a new car – to create a feeling that Hillsborough was something that happened way back then, not that it’s happening now.


Undated handout file photos of the full list of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster (top row left to right) Adam Edward Spearritt, Alan Johnston, Alan McGlone, Andrew Mark Brookes, Anthony Bland, Anthony Peter Kelly, Arthur Horrocks, Barry Glover, Barry Sidney Bennett, Brian Christopher Mathews, Carl William Rimmer, Carl Brown, (second row left to right) Carl Darren Hewitt, Carl David Lewis, Christine Anne Jones, Christopher James Traynor, Christopher Barry Devonside, Christopher Edwards, Colin Wafer, Colin Andrew Hugh William Sefton, Colin Mark Ashcroft, David William Birtle, David George Rimmer, David Hawley, (third row left to right) David John Benson, David Leonard Thomas, David William Mather, Derrick George Godwin, Eric Hankin, Eric George Hughes, Francis Joseph McAllister, Gary Christopher Church, Gary Collins, Gary Harrison, Gary Philip Jones, Gerard Bernard Patrick Baron, (fourth row left to right) Gordon Rodney Horn, Graham John Roberts, Graham John Wright, Henry Charles Rogers, Henry Thomas Burke, Ian David Whelan, Ian Thomas Glover, Inger Shah, James Gary Aspinall, James Philip Delaney, James Robert Hennessy, John Alfred Anderson, (fifth row left to right) John McBrien, Jonathon Owens, Jon-Paul Gilhooley, Joseph Clark, Joseph Daniel McCarthy, Keith McGrath, Kester Roger Marcus Ball, Kevin Daniel Williams, Kevin Tyrrell, Lee Nicol, Marian Hazel McCabe, Martin Kevin Traynor, (sixth row left to right) Martin Kenneth Wild, Michael David Kelly, Nicholas Peter Joynes, Nicholas Michael Hewitt, Patrick John Thompson, Paula Ann Smith, Paul Anthony Hewitson, Paul David Brady, Paul Brian Murray, Paul Clark, Paul William Carlile, Peter Andrew Harrison, (seventh row left to right) Peter Andrew Burkett, Peter Francis Tootle, Peter McDonnell, Peter Reuben Thompson, Philip Hammond, Philip John Steele, Raymond Thomas Chapman, Richard Jones, Roy Harry Hamilton, Sarah Louise Hicks, Simon Bell, Stephen Paul Copoc, (bottom row left to right) Stephen Francis Harrison, St
96 people lost their lives (Picture: PA)

The purpose wasn’t to forget because I would never want to. It was to be able to remember safely, without the emotions becoming so intense and all-consuming that they had a negative impact on my life and those close to me.

In the weeks after the disaster, close friends and family lent a consoling ear, but over time, there’s a tendency to stop talking about it.

I felt like no one wants to be the sad bloke who goes on about Hillsborough years after the event, and I assumed that people didn’t want to hear about it.

It also seemed wrong in some way for a survivor who was a mere observer and physically unhurt to be the one testifying.

Even now while writing this – on a day when we remember the Liverpool dead, not the Nottingham living – I’m questioning myself about whether this is the right thing to do. I suspect many Forest supporters there on the day feel the same.

With the exception of the novel Fan by Danny Rhodes, the experience of Forest supporters at Hillsborough isn’t often told. I’ve still never talked to others who were there to find out if they share my sense of shame at looking on or guilt at not being able to help.

We’re better at talking and listening now than we were in 1989 and my message would be never to assume that no one wants to know, or that you should just suffer in silence, or simply deal with it.

It’s never too late to get help, even after 27 years – nor is it ever too soon.

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing james.besanvalle@metro.co.uk.

Share your views in the comments below.


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Article source: https://metro.co.uk/2021/04/15/i-was-at-the-hillsborough-disaster-and-still-have-survivor-guilt-14384950/

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