Hillsborough: The Crush Barrier–A Smoking Gun?
November 22, 2013
by Martin Odoni
The Hillsborough Disaster of April 1989 ultimately took ninety-six lives as a direct result of the physical injuries it inflicted – and an uncertain number more in the years that followed due to the psychological injuries. The main cause of all these injuries was severe overcrowding of two tightly-fenced enclosures on the Leppings Lane terrace of the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield. That terrace, as has been highlighted elsewhere, was a health-hazard. Entry and egress were a confused, unco-ordinated business due to an overcomplicated stadium lay-out. The capacity of the terrace had been over-estimated by a substantial margin. Piecemeal installation of radial fences onto the terrace had created more and more pressure points, while restricting evacuation routes. The evacuation routes themselves were insufficiently accessible in relation to the crowd-density of a full-capacity attendance. The concrete surface of the terrace was set at too flat a gradient. The tunnel leading under the West Stand into the central pens was set at too steep a gradient. The crush barriers – intermittent metal rails up to ten metres in length that divided up the terrace horizontally so that people right at the front would not be forced to take the weight of the entire crowd behind them – were set too low in the concrete, and their layout was so haphazard and poorly-thought-out (see below) that some barriers had to withstand far more weight than others.
And crucially, one of these barriers broke during the Disaster.
The collapse of the barrier, believed to have happened either around kick-off time, or about three minutes into the game (putatively caused by crowd movements in response to Liverpool player Peter Beardsley striking a shot against the opposing crossbar), undoubtedly upped the death-toll of the Hillsborough Disaster. A little like the opening of Gate C, it did not play a central role in causing the Disaster, but it had a substantial exacerbating effect. With the collapse of the barrier, scores of Liverpool supporters suddenly fell forward en masse. Anyone at the bottom of the ensuing pile-up was certain to be very badly injured, and the odds on their survival would not have been high.
The crush barriers at Hillsborough each had an alphanumeric identity number. The one that collapsed was designated 124a; it was a little under eight metres long, supported by four iron struts, and, viewed from the pitch, was near the front-left corner of pen 3.
Sheffield Wednesday Football Club’s chief safety consultant was Dr Wilfred Eastwood, of Eastwood & Partners. He went on television over the next couple of days to state with almost cocksure firmness that all the crush barriers in the stadium were ‘very adequate’, and that they were subject to annual visual checks and stress-testing. For the barrier to collapse in the way it had, he insisted, it must have been subjected to an extraordinary weight-load.
It appears that much of what Eastwood said was technically true so far as it went, but it later became apparent that his statements were somewhat misleading. For instance, yes, it is true that the barrier was subjected to an extraordinary weight-load during the crush, but it eventually became clear that that was not enough on its own to cause it to give way.
And yes, it appears that annual inspections of crush barriers at Hillsborough were indeed carried out, as Eastwood said, but what we cannot be so confident about is how attentively or rigorously the results of these inspections were considered. For, as one might expect, the wreckage of the barrier was closely analysed by the Health & Safety Executive in the weeks that followed the Disaster, and the conclusions arrived at were disapproving at best.
The HSE found that the ‘elasticity’ of the barrier supports i.e. their capacity to return to their starting position after a heavy load was placed against them was clearly below what was stipulated in guidelines. Worse, substantial corrosion that was visible to the naked eye was found on one of the struts and on the joint connecting it to the surface of the terrace.
Perhaps most unsettling of all during this examination, however, was not the crush barrier or its components, but what was discovered inside it. The barrier rail was a hollow metal pole, open at either end, and in amongst various bits of predictable litter that had built up inside were several pieces of old newspaper. On inspection, one of these was found to be from an issue of the Yorkshire Telegraph & Star, dated from the 24th October, 1931.
To put that in perspective, the newspaper had been printed almost a year-and-a-half before Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of the Weimar Republic, over thirty-two years before John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dealey Plaza, and almost fifty-eight years before the Hillsborough Disaster itself.
The exact date when this item of litter was first ‘binned’ inside the crush barrier, we shall never know, but on balance, it seems highly unlikely to have been long after its publication, which would immediately date the barrier’s creation to no later than 1932, and probably quite a bit earlier. Whatever the reality of that, it seems incontrovertible that the barrier was extremely old, an impression reinforced by analysis of its surface, which indicated that there had been no fewer than thirteen coats of paint applied to it during its years of employment. And for such ancient litter just to have been left to rot inside it for about three generations perhaps tells a story about the casual attitude Sheffield Wednesday had to stadium maintenance. For if the club had really been as on-the-spot about such matters as Eastwood had claimed, such a crush barrier would surely have been replaced long before 1989. (The fact that so many layers of paint had been applied makes it sound doubly suspicious – it is even possible that paint had sometimes been applied in the intervening years to conceal corrosion damage).
The age and decayed condition of the barrier thus may well have played a critical role in its collapse, but the ill-advised positioning and removal of other barriers in pen 3 also played a part. A few yards behind barrier 124a was barrier 136, which had for some years been a continuous rail nearly ten metres in length crossing the left-middle half of the central pen (this was in the days when the Leppings Lane terrace was divided into only three enclosures, and the two central pens had yet to be separated off from each other by a middle fence). The piecemeal introduction of radial fences through the 1980’s had meant that for any police officer trying to intervene with any troublemakers who were stood behind the goal, this long crush barrier was proving to be quite an obstacle to movement. It was therefore decided in 1985 to remove its middle section, dividing the barrier into two parts – barrier 136, and barrier 136a. This action did have the effect desired of it in allowing easier movement through the pen, but it also had an undesired effect that nobody at the club appears to have considered. Given the whole purpose of installing the barriers in the first place, it was a serious oversight.
The problem effect was that, once the middle segment of barrier 136 had been removed, it now opened up a clear, uninterrupted channel of narrow space running in a diagonal line from the mouth of the central tunnel all the way down to barrier 124a at the front. When that channel was over-filled with people, there were no longer any extra lines of barriers to break up the consequent weight-load. Prior to 1985, barrier 136, which had been larger, had taken the brunt of the weight in the back-left quarter of the central pen, while fans between 136 and 124a would only put weight on the front barrier.
But during the crush in 1989, the partial-weight of hundreds of spectators crammed inside that now-unbroken channel was transmitted onto barrier 124a, adding to the full weight of scores of people propped up immediately behind it. As new arrivals entered pen 3, they would immediately enter that channel, and add their weight to the numbers. Already weakened by decades of use and the onset of corrosion, the supports holding up the barrier could not withstand that amount of pressure, and they finally buckled.
As mentioned above, it was a startling blunder that the club missed the danger implicit in removing part of a crush barrier, as was its failure over the course of four long years to make a proper assessment of the other barrier that was most likely to be affected by the change. As has been highlighted previously, Sheffield Wednesday Football Club had been guilty of failing to keep its ground’s safety certificate up-to-date for fully ten years before the Disaster – the process involved in updating a certificate would have included an assessment of the crush barriers. The club in fact made many piecemeal changes to the Leppings Lane end of the stadium without properly considering the safety implications, or getting the certificate updated accordingly. In light of the generally abysmal safety record of the Leppings Lane terrace*, including near-disaster at the FA Cup semi-final of 1981 caused by excessive containment of spectators, it says a lot that most changes made to the terrace through the 1980’s increased the containment of spectators while reducing the safety facilities. More and more new fences, for instance, were added to hem people in, while the crush barriers designed to protect people from injuries were either allowed to rot or were even removed altogether.
It all fitted into the wider pattern of poor safety all over the Leppings Lane end of the stadium. Turnstiles were too few in number, and some were in a decrepit shape. The entry lay-out was confusing and poorly signposted. Gates in the perimeter fence between the terrace and the pitch were undersized.
While there is no doubt that prime culpability for the Hillsborough Disaster lies with the South Yorkshire Police, the unsafe nature of the stadium was the failing of Sheffield Wednesday Football Club. The newspaper lodged inside an aged and dilapidated crush barrier is the crucial evidence that shows that, like so many football clubs of the time, it was an institution that did not really care.
There may not have been any deliberate murder, and there may have been no bullet fired. But the collapsed crush barrier is a smoking gun, and the fingerprints of Sheffield Wednesday’s negligence are all over it.
* It has been highlighted elsewhere on this blog that safety worries at FA Cup semi-finals at Hillsborough were almost a matter of routine in the 1980’s. But the dangerous history of the Leppings Lane terrace is not limited to that decade by any means, nor to FA Cup fixtures.
For instance, crushes developed at various semi-finals there as far back as the 1950’s, including the 1957 fixture between Birmingham City and Manchester United, while the following eye-witness account, from Ian Lavery MP, identifies familiar misfortunes at a league fixture between Sheffield Wednesday and Newcastle United from 1985; –
“We turned up as normal, but we could not get into the ground. And what happened? The gates were opened, we were hurled into Hillsborough like cattle and forced through the tunnel at the Leppings Lane end. People were climbing the perimeter fences to get over and climbing up to the upper stand. People panicked, yet there was no operational support from the police. I was pushed back against the wall – and I am a fairly big sort of guy – only to feel a policeman’s forearm across my windpipe. I was told to stop pushing, but people could not move. This was a league game at Sheffield Wednesday. I was evicted from the stadium. Supporters were terrified: there was utter chaos and no control. The police approach at that time was to treat supporters like animals. There was no regard whatever for the safety or health of anyone.
“Frankly, it was appalling.”
Other essays about the Hillsborough Disaster; –