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British Inquest Finds Police At Fault For Hillsborough Soccer Stadium Disaster

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The longest legal inquest in UK history wrapped up today, the investigation into the Hillsborough disaster. That was a 1989 crush at a soccer stadium in England that killed 96 people. It was the worst sports disaster in UK history. But it took nearly 30 years for the truth about what happened that day to finally come out. To learn more, we're joined by NPR's Lauren Frayer in London. Welcome to the show.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi, Kelly.

MCEVERS: And Lauren, tell us what happened that afternoon at the Hillsborough Stadium in 1989.

FRAYER: It was a sold-out soccer game, a huge overflow of fans were outside. And so police opened a stadium gate to try to relieve some of the congestion. They were worried about a crush of people outside the stadium and didn't realize that it created a massive crush inside. There were steel fences and turnstiles that people were pushed up against. And all but three of those 96 victims died of asphyxia. Many of them were very young, some just children. It was a family day out. There was one family who lost two daughters, young children. Police say it was a stampede instigated by drunken fans without tickets, and families have spent nearly 30 years trying to overcome a police cover-up and get justice for their relatives.

MCEVERS: So then, what happened today?

FRAYER: Today, a jury in this investigation found that the 96 victims of Hillsborough were killed unlawfully, that police errors were to blame. And gross negligence by the top officer in charge of security that day made him responsible for manslaughter. The jury also found that the behavior of soccer fans themselves did not contribute to the disaster. And that created this really emotional moment outside the courtroom for victims' families.

Twenty-seven years in the making, they've been waiting to see their loved ones exonerated. They left the courtroom today singing Liverpool's soccer team's anthem "You'll Never Walk Alone." These were Liverpool fans who died. Let's hear some of that now.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) You'll never walk alone. Walk on. Walk on with hope in your heart.

MCEVERS: So these fans finally exonerated. How is it that the fans themselves were blamed for the stampede?

FRAYER: So this was decades ago in this era of soccer hooliganism. And the narrative that emerged from both police and some news media in the UK was that the fans were drunk and out of control. A top police official actually lied and said it was fans that opened that external gate at the stadium.

Margaret Thatcher's former press secretary blamed the fans. And a tabloid newspaper, The Sun, ran a story about fans attacking rescue workers, pickpocketing the bodies of victims. These were really ugly accusations about people involved in this disaster and even the very people who died. Here's Anne Burkett who lost her son Peter. She spoke to reporters outside the court.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANNE BURKETT: To lose a loved one in a disaster is impossible to describe in mere words. What followed massively increased the distress and grief of all of us families. A police cover-up of industrial proportions, it has continued in one guise or another until today.

MCEVERS: So I guess the question is - why did it take so long for people like Anne Burkett to get answers? And what are the police saying about this?

FRAYER: Well, the denials and cover-up and finger-pointing went on for years. But today, finally, police took full blame. They issued condolences to victims, called the police errors catastrophic. Hillsborough really changed the way sporting events are policed around the world - also changed the design of stadiums. There are no external stadium fences anymore, for example - no standing-only sections like there were at Hillsborough.

This was a fact-finding inquest, so not a criminal case. But the finding of unlawful killing means British prosecutors are now under pressure. And they say they're now studying these findings and are considering criminal charges.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Lauren Frayer. Thank you.

FRAYER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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