Hillsborough: What Might Have Happened Had The Tunnel Been Closed?

April 26, 2016

by Martin Odoni

(Originally written 21st March 2015; publication delayed for the duration of the Hillsborough Inquests.)

I have written elsewhere, and stand by, an essay arguing that the critical mistake that triggered the Hillsborough Disaster of April 1989 was not the one many people think. The frequent assumption is that the decision by Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield of the South Yorkshire Police to open an exit gate to relieve pressure on the turnstiles at the west end of the stadium was the blunder that caused the Disaster, but in reality it was the right thing to do in circumstances where high crowd-pressure on the turnstiles had become a danger to lives. The blunder Duckenfield was guilty of was his failure to keep tabs on the crowd build-up on the terraces, and thus failing to close access to any enclosures (‘pens’) when they became full. The central pens behind the goal at the Leppings Lane end of Hillsborough were already over-crowded even before the gate was opened, with access to them still being left wide open, and so even if the gate had remained closed, there was still likely to be some kind of disaster.

Now during the last week or so (at the time of writing), Duckenfield himself has been giving testimony to the re-booted Coroner’s Inquest into the Disaster. He has managed to remain an infuriating, evasive and contrary witness throughout, while at the same time conceding far, far more than he did at the original Inquest in 1991. The landmark moment was when he finally admitted, after twenty-six long and painful years, that his failure to close the tunnel leading into the central pens when they were full was the direct cause of the Disaster, a moment of confession that was genuinely worthy of the unreal confines of a Hollywood courtroom drama.

But in among all the excited back-and-forth on social media about that moment, I had been paying attention to other things that Duckenfield had been saying, especially on the subject of the moment that he had to decide whether or not to open Gate C. He stated to the Inquest that he was “shocked and taken aback by [the request to open the exit gates] and thinking, ‘Where are these people going to go if I open the gates?” ‘, but his mind went blank trying to calculate the answer.

What is intriguing about this part of his statement is that it shows that Duckenfield was trying to think of the consequences of what he was ordering, but just did not have the knowledge to answer his own question. But further than that, this appears the nearest he came at any time that day to contemplating the crowd build-up on the terraces. At no stage to this point had he given the slightest thought to how densely packed any of the pens were becoming, just assuming that the fans would ‘find their own level’ even though the lateral fences on the terrace made that impossible. Paradoxically, therefore, this means that the emergency in Leppings Lane was, in the strangest way, a missed blessing; it forced Duckenfield to consider what might be about to happen on the terraces, and if only he had swallowed his pride and asked his colleagues in the Police Control Box to advise him, he would surely have been told to close the tunnel under the West Stand. Without the request to open Gate C, he would probably never have given the crowd build-up on the terraces any thought at all, and a disaster would have been completely inevitable. Alas, he did not ask for that advice, and so a disaster set in anyway, but the need to make a decision over the exit gate had at least had the potential to avert it.

But all of this does raise a couple of interesting questions; what if Duckenfield had asked his colleagues where the fans might head to if the exit gate were opened, and what if they had warned him to close off the tunnel? Would that mean that there would definitely have been no disaster that day?

Sadly, I suspect that the chances of a disaster occurring would still have been no lower than fifty-fifty. While opening the exit gate was not central to the causes of the Hillsborough Disaster, and while it was the correct decision in the circumstances, it does not change the fact that it was still a very, very risky instruction to give, one that needed to be carried out in a very precisely controlled way, and my doubt is that the inexperienced Duckenfield would have had the know-how to handle it right.

Gangway 2 with one of its gates in a closed position.

The spectator tunnel – sometimes called ‘Gangway 2’ – leading under the West Stand into the central pens had double-gates at its entrance. If they had simply been closed before the Exit Gates from the ground had been opened to ease pressure on the turnstiles, the Disaster in the central pens would never have happened.

For me, the danger was that, if ‘Gangway 2’ were closed off before the exit gate was opened, the issue of overcrowding might have simply shifted to another pen. By the time the game kicked off at 3pm, side-pens 6 and 7, on the north end of the Leppings Lane terrace, were only about half-full, but pens 1 and 2 at the south end were by now well over three-quarters full. Partly, this was because many fans who had escaped the crush in the central pens had been transferred to pens 1 and 2. But partly also, when the exit gate had been opened, over two thousand supporters poured into the inner entry concourse, and while about three-quarters of them went down the tunnel, about a quarter of them headed for the entrance to pens 1 and 2, because the side-entrance, while still not obvious, was at least visible enough from the exit gate for some of the fans to notice.

My concern is therefore that, were the gates on ‘Gangway 2’ closed off, almost all the fans entering through Gate C would probably have headed for the entrance to pens 1 and 2 instead, as the entrance to pens 6 and 7 was hidden from view behind a diagonal wall leading from the turnstile bank to the back wall of the West Stand.

Access to Leppings Lane terrace.

The layout of the Leppings Lane entry concourse at Hillsborough, as it was in 1989. The entrance to wing-pens 1 and 2 was out of view beyond the left edge of the picture. It was concealed from the view of anyone entering through either the turnstiles or Gate C, due to the diagonal wall visible to the left of the tunnel.

Closing the tunnel on its own is not enough to constitute good crowd guidance; there was still no actual monitoring by the police of crowd build-up on the terrace, and almost no directions were being provided to arriving fans, be it by the police or by club stewards. There would therefore be no particular reason to assume that anyone would have intervened once pens 1 and 2 were full, and no reason at all to imagine that fans arriving through Gate C would have been able to figure out by themselves that there was another pair of side-pens, with far more room still available, at the opposite end of the terrace.

With this in mind, there would be every danger that there would simply have been a crush in the southern side pens instead of in pens 3 and 4. As the lay-out of the side pens was less cramped than the central pens, such a crush might not have been so severe, but the consequences, were it to happen, would still have been disastrous.

The exact shape of this alternative disaster is something we can only speculate on. But the clear danger of it happening even if the real disaster had been averted is cardinal. It underlines the fact that, ultimately, Lord Justice Peter Taylor’s criticism of the South Yorkshire Police in his Interim Report in August 1989 was entirely correct. There really was a catastrophic failure of police control at Hillsborough, not just over the central pens, but everywhere in and around the stadium. The only sure way of avoiding a disaster completely is for such a failure not to happen.

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