LONDON – The northern English city of Liverpool is commemorating the 96 soccer fans who were crushed to death in a crowded stadium in 1989, honoring each one by name Wednesday as Britain faced a moment of soul-searching on how it responded to the tragedy.
Banners reading “Truth” and “Justice” were hung from the neo-classical columns of St George’s Hall in central Liverpool, just above 96 lanterns to be lit to mark each life lost. Flowers adorned the steps of the building. Fans tied Liverpool team scarves on a nearby lamppost.
Another banner paid tribute with the words of the team’s anthem: “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
Home Secretary Theresa May told a hushed House of Commons that the case “raises significant issues for the way that the state and its agencies deal with disasters.” She praised the resolve of the families who fought for the truth for 27 years.
“To have stood … for so long shows a steel and determination, but also an affection for their lost loved ones and passionate desire for justice on behalf of those who died,” she said. “That is, as I said, extraordinary and I think we will rarely see the like again.”
On Tuesday, a jury found that police and emergency services were to blame for the April 15, 1989, disaster at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, exonerating the behavior of the crowd and saying it didn’t contribute to the tragedy.
Pressure is building to bring criminal charges for the blunders by police and for the cover-up that prevented the families of the victims from learning the truth for so long. Prosecutors may take a year to consider the matter.
By late Wednesday, at least one public official had been suspended in light of the inquest findings — David Crompton, the chief constable of South Yorkshire Police. Alan Billings, South Yorkshire police and crime commissioner, said he had been “left with no choice” but to suspend Crompton “based on the erosion of public trust and confidence” in the force.
The original inquest in 1991 recorded verdicts of accidental death. Those verdicts were overturned in 2012 after a far-reaching inquiry into the disaster examined previously secret documents and exposed wrongdoing and mistakes by police.
At the heart of the issue is the fact that the fans were blamed for the crush that caused so many deaths. Though hooliganism was a big part of English soccer throughout the 1980s, a false narrative that blamed drunken, ticketless and rowdy Liverpool fans was created by police and spread by a lawmaker in Sheffield.
Families fought hard to clear the names of their loved ones. Anne Burkett, whose son Peter, 24, had traveled to the match with friends, said the story of Hillsboroughwas one of “human tragedy.”
“It is evidence of a culture of denial within South Yorkshire Police,” she said.
Reaction to the verdicts was swift — particularly after the jury found in favor of the families on every point. Labour lawmaker Andy Burnham described the verdicts as being a “watershed” for how victims are treated.
“What kind of country leaves people, who did no more than wave off their loved ones, still sitting in a courtroom 27 years later, begging for the reputations of their sons, daughters, brothers, sisters and fathers?” he said. “The answer is one that needs now to do some deep soul-searching.”
The stain went beyond the immediate families affected. The Liverpool Echo’s front page Wednesday featured the bold words “Angels and Demons,” describing the coroner’s verdict as a vindication for the northern city, which went from being known as the home of the Beatles to being overshadowed by the allegations.
“Heroes fought for justice, and at last a city is vindicated,” a headline said. “Now, the pressure mounts on the cowards and the liars.”
Alastair Machray, who edits the Echo, told the BBC the verdicts are only the beginning.
“The truth is out, but truth alone is not justice, is it?” he said “It’s a question of definitions and semantics, if you like, but justice does include accountability.”
He said that Liverpool has been blamed for 27 years and “that is scandalous.”
“So moving on and justice is not possible until accountability has taken place,” he said.