A former South Yorkshire police officer who was on duty at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough when 96 people were killed has broken down in court as he recalled that his initial reaction, after a large exit gate was opened to relieve a crush outside the ground, was relief. Insp Stephen Ellis said…
A former South Yorkshire police officer who was on duty at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough when 96 people were killed has broken down in court as he recalled that his initial reaction, after a large exit gate was opened to relieve a crush outside the ground, was relief.
Insp Stephen Ellis said at the start of his evidence in the prosecutions of the former police match commander David Duckenfield and the Sheffield Wednesday club secretary and safety officer Graham Mackrell that he had little memory of what happened that day and found recalling it distressing.
Led through his previous statements about the disaster by Richard Matthews QC, the lead prosecution barrister, Ellis agreed he was involved in trying to alleviate a crush that had built up outside the turnstiles at the Leppings Lane end.
The jury of six men and six women have already heard that the 24,000 people with tickets to support Liverpool in the semi-final against Nottingham Forest had to get into the ground through 23 turnstiles, and that the 10,100 people with tickets to stand on the Leppings Lane terraces were allocated just seven of those turnstiles.
After a large crowd of people built up at those turnstiles after 2.30pm, Ellis said, he climbed on top of a police Land Rover and began to shout through a megaphone, urging people to move back from the crush.
Ellis said he became seriously concerned for people’s safety and was “shouting at the top of my voice”, telling people not to be anxious about getting into the ground by the scheduled 3pm kickoff, to “stop pushing, move back,” and that others were getting crushed at the front.
Earlier, John Bennett, another former police inspector on duty at Hillsborough that day, described the scene outside as “a seething mass” of people and said some who got through the turnstiles blamed police for failing to control the crowd and were abusive. “The bulk of the supporters were actually, I feel, in fear of their lives,” Bennett said.
Bennett said the crush of people prevented the turnstile mechanism from working, because it would not turn if too much pressure was applied.
Ellis recalled that he shouted through his megaphone that the 3pm kickoff had been delayed, although he had no information that it had. In fact, the jury has heard, the kickoff was not postponed.
Ellis said he did that because people were calling for a delay. “I told them what I thought they wanted to hear, hoping it would calm the situation,” he said.
Ellis told the court he had not been aware that the wide exit gate C had been opened to allow a large number of people through at once. The jury has already heard expert evidence that 2,603 people entered the ground through two openings of gate C, at 2.48pm and then at 2.52pm.
A tunnel leading to the central “pens” of the Leppings Lane terrace was not closed and many people went down that tunnel, the court has been told, and the lethal crush took place in the central pens 3 and 4.
Asked about the thinning of the crowd caught in the crush outside the turnstiles, when gate C was opened, Ellis became visibly distressed.
He said: “This part upsets me, because I was so concerned about the safety of people in front of Leppings Lane, and I had been shouting over the speaker system for 20 minutes, coughing every 30 seconds because I was shouting so loud, witnessing things in front of me that I was seriously concerned [about]. And then, [in] what seemed like seconds, I looked again and there was just about five metres of spectators in front of the turnstiles. And I felt a huge sense of relief. But where had they gone? God, they went in there quick.”
Ellis was excused from giving further evidence or being cross-examined by the barristers for Duckenfield and Mackrell. Instead, after a lunch break, Duckenfield’s barrister, Benjamin Myers QC, read extracts from statements Ellis made in 1989 and in 2015.
The 1989 statement included observations that Liverpool supporters had been looking for pubs and drinking before the match, were pushing, and “gripped by a mania” outside the turnstiles to get into the match, that some dived over the turnstiles, and that the police were powerless to control the numbers of people.
Duckenfield, a South Yorkshire police chief superintendent at the time, is charged with gross negligence manslaughter in relation to 95 of the people who died. Mackrell is charged with two criminal breaches of safety legislation. Both men have pleaded not guilty to the charges.
The trial continues.