Tens of thousands have attended a ceremony at Anfield in Liverpool, recalling the deaths of 96 fans crushed a quarter of a century ago at an FA Cup semifinal.
Anfield stadium in Liverpool, packed to the rafters with supporters, stood silent for a minute on Tuesday, remembering Liverpool Football Club's darkest hour. "A time never to forget," the stadium announcer said simply after the silence.
Church and civic bells across Merseyside then tolled 96 times - once for each victim - in memory of fans killed at the 1989 semifinal. The bells began ringing at 3:06 p.m. local time (1406 UTC), the moment when a policeman rushed onto the pitch and ordered the referee to halt play 25 years ago. By that point, two sections of the standing-only "terraces" behind Liverpool's goal had filled well beyond their designed capacities with fatal consequences.
Liverpool, fighting for the Premiership title this season, took to the field on Sunday against Manchester City wearing black armbands. Fans spelled out "96 25 years" at the Kop end, among many other banners and messages on display. Liverpool won the top-of-the-table game 3-2, and captain Steven Gerrard was tearful after the match.
"The reason I was so emotional was because of when this game fell," Gerrard later told the British media. "It wasn't just because it was a big match in our season, it was because this week is always about more than football for everyone associated with Liverpool."
Gerrard, a local boy and one-club player, lost a 10-year-old elder cousin, Jon-Paul Gilhooley, to the Hillsborough crush. Gilhooley was the youngest Hillsborough victim. Every weekend game around the country's top eight divisions started a symbolic seven minutes later than scheduled.
Deadly tragedy in Sheffield
On April 15, 1989, Liverpool played Nottingham Forest in an FA Cup semifinal - played on neutral ground at Sheffield Wednesday's Hillsborough stadium. A crush of supporters had built up outside the ground prior to kick-off, as Liverpool fans were ushered through a small number of decrepit turnstiles. Police ultimately opened a large exit gate in a bid to alleviate the crush outside - but supporters flocked through this straight into the most overcrowded sections. Too many supporters were ultimately allowed into standing, terraced, areas directly behind the goal Liverpool were defending in the first half. The emergency services response was slow, only 14 of the 96 dead ever made it to a hospital.
Standing fan areas were later banned in the top English football divisions.
Current Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers and his Everton counterpart Roberto Martinez both delivered readings at the ceremonies. In a show of unity between the city rivals, the memorial service was also shown on big screens at Everton's Goodison Park.
"We will always strive to honor the families and the memory of the 96 that we lost," Rodgers said, his voice beginning to tremble. "You'll Never Walk Alone," he concluded, a nod to the club's anthem.
Anniversary amid fresh inquiry
The public and press handling of the tragedy at the time both angered and galvanized the city - at a time when British fan misbehavior was in sharp focus. Police officials blamed supporters for arriving late and drunk for the match, creating the crush. Mass-circulation tabloid The Sun was boycotted by most Liverpool newsagents less than a week after the tragedy, after it printed a story headlined "The Truth" claiming that fans had looted dead supporters and physically impeded the emergency services. One Liverpool supporter on Sunday displayed a banner saying "we told you so," followed by a logo similar to that of The Sun, instead using the word "Scum."
In December 2012, following an indepent inquiry that accused police of a cover-up, the High Court quashed the original verdicts of accidental death from a Lord Justice Taylor inquest completed in 1990. A fresh inquest is ongoing as a result of the latest inquiries, which prompted a public apology from Prime Minister David Cameron.
Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham, who was instrumental in reopening the investigations, was greeted warmly by supporters at the stadium.
"Five years ago things changed, not because of me but because of all of you," Burnham said. "Things changed because you made your voices heard and thank god you did. Your voices carried off this Kop into every living room in the land and into the heart of the establishment. I knew you were right and they were wrong."
Everton manager Martinez also managed to elicit a loud Anfield cheer - no mean feat for a man in his position - when the Spaniard told the crowd: "The authorities took on the wrong city if they thought they were going to get away with it."
msh/dr (AFP, AP, Reuters)