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A grieving mother's account of football's darkest day
Published : 13 Apr 2009 14:03:30
Dolores Steele went to the game with husband Les and sons Philip (15) and Brian (13). Philip died, Brian survived. We'd had tickets for Les and myself for a while but only got two for the boys a couple of days beforehand. Les had tried so hard to find some, and when he finally succeeded, he came home and said: 'Not a word. I want to tell them myself on Friday night.' I let the cat out of the bag, unfortunately. I can't remember exactly how, but Philip just looked at me wide-eyed and said: 'You've got tickets for me and Brian?' I said: 'Oh, no! Your dad is going to kill me. Don't let on, whatever you do. When he gets home from work and tells you, act surprised.' I needn't have worried. He didn't have to pretend to be excited. He was still up there on the ceiling. I was up at seven the following morning to take the dog out, and it was absolutely glorious. The sun was shining, we were all going to the FA Cup semi-final and I kept saying to myself: 'We are blessed today, truly blessed.' We set off at 10 o'clock. The boys were in the back, listening to music and chatting about the game, and I remember stopping at Glossop to stretch our legs, buy some sweets and fill up with petrol. I couldn't believe our luck when we got there. I don't know Sheffield, but we just came across a parking space on Middlewood Road, barely 10 minutes from the ground. There was over an hour to kick-off, so Les opened a flask of coffee and passed round some sandwiches. All the time, the boys were pestering us to let them go. They were in the Leppings Lane terraces, we were in the West Stand, directly above. Finally, at about 10 past two, we relented. Just before they went, I offered to swap tickets. I wasn't happy about them being on the terraces, and I said: 'Look, boys. Wouldn't you rather have the seats, and your dad and I will stand up?' But they wouldn't have it. They had never stood at a match before, and they were in their element. They weren't going to give those tickets up for anything. As they walked off, Philip turned round and said, with a big smile:'See yer.' It was the last thing he ever said to me. Les and I left the car 10 minutes later and were given an early indication that the police operation might not be all it should be. We asked a mounted policeman the way to the West Stand, and he sent us the wrong way. What should have been a walk of 100 yards or so turned into a trek round the entire perimeter of the stadium. He clearly didn't know the area or understand the ground. It gave us an insight into the shambles to come, and it so nearly involved us in the crush, because it was getting on for 2.30pm when we finally reached the West Stand turnstiles, a scene of mayhem just moments later. How we were not caught up in it, I don't know. Someone must have been looking down on us. There was the usual buzz of conversation as we took our seats, but I was soon mindful of people at the front standing and looking over the edge. We were a good few rows back, but it was clear something wasn't right. It was five or 10 minutes before kick-off, and I began to feel uneasy. I can still feel those awful pangs of anxiety, that feeling that sweeps over you when you sense something is wrong, and I remember thinking: 'I just hope the boys are all right.' I knew they were in pen three, and when I forced my way to the front and peered over, it was total chaos. It wasn't just a crush. You could tell something truly awful was developing. So many people. You could just see a mass of heads, with virtually no space between them. You knew it was serious and people were in trouble. Someone nearby spotted a policeman down on the cinder track and shouted: 'Open the gate, open the gate', then someone else screamed: 'People are dying down there - will you open the gate?' I'll always remember that policeman. He was standing there with his hands behind his back, staring at people having the life squeezed out of them and doing nothing. It seemed to wash over him. He didn't react. Finally, he went over to a colleague, but the thinking seemed to be: 'It's Liverpool fans. Troublemakers. Don't let them on the pitch, whatever happens.' How can anyone have that mindset when people are dying in front of their eyes? It will be a mystery to me as long as I live. Claiming they didn't realise what was happening doesn't stand up. There was the evidence of their own eyes, and people were shouting at them from all directions. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I was in shock. The gate was finally opened, but it was still a desperate scene. There was such a mass of bodies, and they were all lower down than the people on the cinder track. The stewards and first-aiders were struggling to pull them up out of the pen to safety. We had to try and find the boys, but everyone was making for the exit at the back of the stand. As we waited our turn to get out, we looked down on bodies being laid out on advertising boards or given resuscitation. I was frantic with worry, climbing down those steps, yet the first thing I saw as I looked out in front of me was Brian standing on a perimeter wall outside the ground. I just remember thinking: 'Oh, thank God.' He jumped down from the wall, and I hugged him. I asked where Philip was, but he said: 'I don't know, mum. That's why I was on the wall, to see if there was any sign of him.' That worried me, because they were inseparable and would never have allowed themselves to be parted, if they could help it. I had no idea how Brian had escaped that carnage, short of a miracle. Something had clearly happened to Philip. We didn't know what, but at that moment, I was just grateful I hadn't lost both sons. We thought maybe he had gone out through another exit and got lost, because he didn't know Sheffield. That's what we hoped, anyway, but the utter chaos all around us did little to reassure me. People were looking round, not knowing which way to go, asking police, stewards, even other fans where they might find people they'd been split up from. We had to find Philip. Les went back to check if he was by the car, Brian stayed near the back of the stand and I decided to try and find out if he was still in the pen. As I made my way to the tunnel leading to the pens, five policemen barred my way and refused to let me through. The tunnel had to be kept clear, they said, for bringing out the injured. As I peered beyond them, I was struck by how steeply the tunnel sloped down towards the pens. I imagined the momentum generated by a mass of people going down such a gradient, and the impact on those in front, and I shuddered. They all had tickets and wanted to see the game, and they were herded down that slope like a human battering ram. Those at the front didn't stand a chance. The police operation was a complete shambles, but there were others at fault as well. It seems incredible now, but there was no safety certificate for the ground. When they examined one of the barriers near the front of the terracing, all mangled and bent on the ground, they found the horizontal bar that people leaned on had a newspaper stuffed inside it from 1932. That's how outdated Hillsborough was. I headed for the gymnasium next after hearing the injured were being taken there, but again there was a policeman guarding the door and ignoring all my pleas for help. It didn't matter what I said about Philip, I wasn't going to be allowed in. Even when a policewoman wrote an emergency number on the back of my hand, we continued to feel helpless and so afraid. There were no mobiles in those days, and there were mile-long queues for the phone boxes outside. Everyone wanted to phone home and say they were all right. I felt desperate. As I wandered round, a lady came out of her house and asked if she could help. Her son drove us to the Northern General Hospital, and we were shown into a big room full of people clearly in the same boat as us, waiting for news of missing friends or relatives. After a few minutes, a man walked in, climbed on to a table, so he could be seen by everyone, and said: 'I've got very, very bad news for at least 11 families.' The room fell silent as he added: 'We don't know names, so all I can do is describe each victim.' He'd list some distinguishing features, then there'd be acry of anguish. It was awful. Finally, he said: 'Young boy, pale complexion, brown eyes, signet ring with the initials PGS.' With each detail, I thought: 'No, that's not Philip.' The hair colour and eyes didn't match his, but my heart sank at mention of the ring. I had bought Philip a signet ring for his confirmation only a few months earlier, and I knew he was wearing it. The middle initial was wrong. He was PJS, but it was far too close for comfort. I explained and asked if I could see the ring, if not the body, so I could be sure. I kept saying to this man: 'It's my son. I need to know.' But he just looked at me and said: 'No, if the initials aren't right, please go and sitdown.' So much of what happened that day was like that - cold, unfeeling, almost inhuman. As I went back to my seat, a Red Cross lady came over and put an arm round me. She must have seen what had happened and noted my expression, because she said: 'You're really, really worried about something, aren't you?' When I told her, she said: 'That's not good enough. Come on, we're going to sort this out.' She took me up to the next floor, where there was a young policewoman who looked upset herself and a sergeant who was pacing up and down. I explained how I needed to see the ring, but I got the same answer from the sergeant that I'd had so many times before. Couldn't be done. Not possible. All of a sudden, this young slip of a policewoman blurted out: 'For God's sake, go and get it. How long will it take to do that? At least then this poor lady will know.' Never mind rank, she really tore a strip off him, and, incredibly, he went and got it. A couple of minutes later, he came back with an envelope, and I said: 'I only want to look at the ring. That's all I need to see.' He took it out and showed me, and in that split second, I knew Philip was dead. A glance was all it needed. I could see in an instant it was his ring. We were taken into a side room, and I remember a vicar asking if we wanted a cup of tea. I didn't know what I wanted, except to see Philip. We were about to be taken to the hospital morgue when Les said: 'Hang on, what about Brian? We left him by our car, in case Philip turned up there.' A radio message was sent out, and he was brought over. He clearly thought there was good news, because he bounded into the room and said: 'Have you found him? Has he broken his leg or something?' I just looked at him and thought: 'Oh, no.' The nurse who was with us volunteered to tell him, but I said: 'No, this is my job. I'm his mum, and I've got to do it.' I broke it to him as gently as I could and just held him. It was awful. The agony went on, because after waiting outside the morgue for an hour, we discovered he wasn't there. He had been taken to Hillsborough, where the gym had been turned into a mortuary. When we finally got back to the ground, Les told me to stay in the car with Brian while he went in with a priest to identify Philip's body. It was half past nine when he finally saw Philip. Six and a half hours after the kick-off. Even then, he had to look at a set of polaroid photos on a wall and pick out Philip. Each one had a number, and after pointing to him, Les was taken to whatever number Philip was. No sooner had he done that than Les was interviewed by the police and asked whether we had been drinking before the game. It was unbelievable, so insensitive, and when he got back to the car, Les said: 'I know what they are doing. They're going to deflect the blame and pin it on the fans by claiming they were all drunk.' Sure enough, all the bereaved families were asked the same questions, and the most hurtful thing of all was testing the victims for alcohol. They were all given blood tests, even the little 10-year old boy who died. While all this was going on, our daughter Denise was back home, wondering what was going on. She had no interest in football and had been in work most of the day. All she knew was that we were at Hillsborough and a lot of people had died. We tried her a couple of times, in between trying to find Philip, but couldn't get through. As the hours went by, she became more convinced she had lost her entire family. Finally, at about 11 o'clock, we made contact and told her everything. A couple of minutes after that, we were taken back to our car, still in its parking space on Middlewood Road. We could have walked, but the police insisted on giving us a lift. I wish they hadn't. The policeman pulled up by our car, just said 'right, OK, there you are' and waited for us to get out before driving off. Not a word of sympathy. Absolutely cold and unfeeling. The journey home was almost unbearable. I drove, with Les beside me, and all we heard was the constant sobbing of Brian in the back. He cried uncontrollably all the way. It hit Les just as hard. He always used to say to the children: 'Any problems in your life, come to me. I'm your dad, I'll fix it. That's what I'm here for.' That's what really got to him. This was something he couldn't sort out, something that was beyond his control. Being at the game made it even worse. He was there but couldn't protect Philip, and that devastated him. When we at last got home, at quarter past midnight, our parish priest was there with Denise. He wanted to be there for us, and for three weeks after that, he visited us every night. In fact, the house would be crammed with people every day, from 10.30 in the morning until midnight. People were great, they really were.