Mike Bracken PTSD and Hillsborough
Friday, April 17th, 2009
One man’s personal journey, through his own eyes that took him to Hillsborough 20 years ago and the effects of the Post-traumatic stress he had to endure. Mike Bracken of the Guardian speaks out (14 04 09) on that tragic, fateful day 96 people lost their lives. For the purposes of integrity, inexcess will not be editing this particular journey.
Bracken argues that ‘Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)is a cruelly circular condition. According to the British Medical Journal, a frequent symptom is “trying to avoid thinking about or talking about what has happened. If you have this symptom, it may make it hard to ask for help.” Exactly 20 years on from Britain’s worst football stadium disaster, trying to talk about what happened at Hillsborough is still too difficult for many who, like me, were unlucky enough to be present on that sunny April day.
Even for those of us who have started along the path, coming to terms with what we saw is a long and difficult journey. In my case, it meant spending a part of every day for nearly a year listening to a recording of myself recounting the experience. The process of acceptance moves at glacial pace. At the start it induces wild-eyed panic; by the end it makes talking about what happened merely deeply unpleasant.
Every year I follow the media coverage of the anniversary, hoping it will focus on the heroism and stoicism of so many who were present. As Sheila Coleman of the Hillsborough Justice Campaign recalls, “After escaping with their lives from the pens, fans immediately transformed into rescuers, ferrying the dead and injured across the pitch on torn-down hoardings that they utilised as makeshift stretchers. But for their heroic actions, the number of dead would undoubtedly have been greater.”
I wonder if there will ever be recognition of the thousands of lives that are still terribly affected. Ninety-six Liverpool fans died in the Leppings Lane crush; 730 more were injured inside the stadium, and 36 outside the gates. A total of 54,000 attended the game. “In many respects,” says Coleman, “the survivors of the Hillsborough disaster are forgotten victims.”
I have watched Liverpool since 1973. A season-ticket holder for decades, by 1989 I had visited dozens of football grounds, including Hillsborough, many of them antiquated and in states of serious disrepair. The journey over the Pennines seemed routine. We parked a mile from the north-west end of the stadium, then set off to look for extra tickets for family and friends.
Ninety minutes before kick-off, we found a ticket for my father in the South Stand, side-on to the pitch. I had to walk around three sides of the ground, past the enormous Spion Kop where the rival Nottingham Forest fans gathered, to reach my turnstiles. As I approached, many hundreds of Liverpool fans were converging on the West Stand and Leppings Lane standing area beneath it.
A piecemeal design over several decades, the West Stand and its entrance was a major cause of the disaster. As the interim report by Lord Justice Taylor would later observe: “At many other grounds, turnstiles are in a straight line, adequately spaced and with a sufficient waiting area for queues to form. Not so at Leppings Lane … The pairs of turnstiles were close together, and the forecourt provided little space for a waiting crowd.”
With the kick-off still more than half an hour away, the seven operating turnstiles already could not handle the Liverpool fans pressing forward outside. As queueing became impossible and hundreds more fans crossed the forecourt to the turnstiles, I found myself sweating and in discomfort. I had no control over my direction of movement. A man next to me was in obvious pain; mercifully, a young girl was hoisted above the crush.
As the minutes passed, my fears increased. I had been in many a push-and-shove to get into football grounds before, but this felt very different. A mounted police officer, his horse apparently motionless in the crowd, was attracting criticism. The police just did not appear to have a plan. Serious injury or worse seemed inevitable; the pressure increased. Unable to move my arms and facing a metal gate, I saw others begin to struggle. Sweating, panicking, I felt the metal gate open briefly. I fell through it. Moments later, it closed again.
I believe I was the second person to get through. The calmness inside the concourse, compared with the bedlam outside, was staggering. But, disastrously, there was a similar absence of organised police or ground stewards inside. Aware of the distress outside the gate, I pleaded with police to open it. I shouted at a young PC. Although a command to open the gate was, in fact, given from the police control room, it felt as if officers were reacting to events without any authority or chain of command.
Approaching the tunnel that led down to our standing area behind the goal, and still shocked by the previous crush, I bought a carton of Kia-Ora near the tunnel’s entrance. Hundreds of fans started to approach, and my fear returned. This was the only entrance to the pens directly behind the goal. “Don’t go down there, mate, it’s gonna be packed,” I told a group of fellow fans. Like many others who thought they had come through the worst, they passed me without comment. I remain convinced that just one steward or police officer directing fans to the side entrances, away from the central pens, could have saved many lives that day. Every day since, I have wondered if I could, and should, have done more.
As more fans passed me, I panicked. I hurried from the tunnel entrance to the steps at the side of the Leppings Lane terrace, expecting to see too many people in too small a space. What I saw pushed me into shock. I ran to the gates of the South Stand, shouting, “People are going to die!” at police and football club officials. They looked at me in silence.
The terrible images of dying fans being lifted over the fences on to the pitch are now well known - but at the back of those crowded pens, away from the cameras, I witnessed more horrors. Behind the West Stand, bodies were laid out behind and to the right of the tunnel. The injured lay with the dead. Unable to administer help or determine the extent of injuries, I panicked and vainly tried to attract help.
It was here that I saw real heroism. Some fans attempted resuscitation. Many others pleaded with the police for access to ambulances, not knowing that 44 ambulances had been parked outside at the opposite end of the ground on the orders of South Yorkshire police. I watched fans reason calmly and logically with the hapless authorities while their friends clung to life. Amazingly, several police officers denied fans access to the bodies. I saw fans being pushed and blamed by police for the grotesque scene I was witnessing. Several young men, little older than me, appealed for calm, aware that the police would welcome any excuse to blame fans. Their self-control was remarkable - their friends were lying dead and injured yards away, yet they were denied access to them while being provoked physically and verbally.
“Many [of these fans] have lived their lives to date without acknowledgment of what was probably the most traumatic experience of their lives,” says Coleman.
As the bodies were belatedly attended to, I made my way from the ground. Car radios screamed the growing body count. Now in shock and unable to speak, I found myself in a local house. I phoned home but was unable to talk. My unknown host confirmed to my family that I was alive. This was how my Hillsborough ended. Mute, in shock and lost.
My father arrived hours later. His Hillsborough included being refused access to the bodies by a senior police officer, who told him without irony that, if he entered the pitch, the police could not take any responsibility for him. Among the bodies and rescuers, my father turned around a young man dressed in clothes identical to mine. After searching the pitch and stadium, he returned to his car to find me crumpled up next to it. No one spoke. We drove back to Merseyside in silence. There were no tears.
You may feel that, 20 years later, all the talking about Hillsborough has been done. I think, for many, it has barely started. There are thousands of survivors and witnesses who can’t “move on” because their reality has not yet been made public. The absence of justice, of any acceptance of blame for the terrible misjudgments made that day, is the most important barrier, but the long-term guilt and shame are also factors. Even now, I am commonly asked about what I saw in a roundabout way. It is often raised as, “Were you at Sheffield?” or, “Were you at the game?”
For me, and for so many, it was the years afterwards that were problematic. After several months of shock, thankfully protected by good pastoral care at work and university, and several years of denial, the impact finally made itself felt. Triggered by who-knows-what, the tears arrived. Walking down a road, in a restaurant, at home, on a train. Eight to 10 years later, no amount of denial could hold back my emotions any more.
“Any feelings of relief at escaping the carnage of Hillsborough were very quickly replaced by feelings of guilt,” Coleman says. “In many cases, this guilt led to people suppressing the feelings they were experiencing - almost as if they had no right to label themselves victims.”
Several suicides have been ascribed to Hillsborough, including one Nottingham Forest fan who witnessed events from the other end of the ground. Alcohol and drug addiction are not uncommon. But what is needed now is a proper, comprehensive study by the Football Association of the long-term effects on survivors, witnesses and families. As Coleman says, “The FA got off lightly after Hillsborough - they owed the fans present a duty of care. It would be a fitting tribute to the survivors if the FA were to fund research into the long-term impact of the disaster. Let that be the FA’s legacy of Hillsborough, rather than the loud sigh of relief that reverberated when they were let off the hook.”
Tomorrow we will rightly mourn the 96 victims who died on 15 April 1989. But we should also celebrate those fans whose heroic behaviour and dignity was in stark contrast to the antipathy and ineptitude of the South Yorkshire police, and the mercilessly inhuman press coverage by the Sun. Most of all, we should reach out to those who are still locked in a needless and damaging cycle of guilt and shame as a result of attending a football match. It is time they stopped walking alone.