The Immediate Aftermath - 4. The Gymnasium
The gymnasium was the designated site at the Hillsborough ground for first aid. The criticisms levelled at this area are into those in charge and who treated people so insensitively.
Before the game the gymnasium was being used as an area for refreshments for the police. Evidence of those involved at the gymnasium immediately after the Disaster indicates that the chaos on the pitch was mirrored at the gymnasium. There was a distinct lack of co - ordination and direction in the short term. Bodies were laid out at random and medical personnel had to search through people to look for those who might till be alive. They were frustrated in their rescues attempts by a lack of equipment. One nurse commented on how she could not find scissors to cut an injured man's jumper in order to carry out a tracheotomy. She was eventually given a blunt knife by a police officer. A nurse manager who had been frustrated in his rescue attempts on the pitch by lack of equipment found a similar situation in the gymnasium:
"Another scene of chaos… I began to work with the injured in the gymnasium at around 15.55 hours. I was conscious of around three doctors in attendance, but when I arrived there was still no medical equipment of any sort."
A doctor who attended at the gymnasium in response to an appeal for help stated:
"There were bodies everywhere. Who was alive and who was dead?… Bodies lying higgledly-piggledy just inside the door, the line stretching over to the far wall. … Who was going to tell me what to do? Without directions I ran along the lines of crumpled bodies."
After the injured were removed the gymnasium became the temporary mortuary. Even the dead in the hospitals were returned there for identification purposes. This decision has been heavily criticised. Yet the Detective Superintendent of South Yorkshire C.I.D. who claims to have made the decision stated his reasons:
"I saw it as an ideal situation, if you don't mind me saying, to put all the eggs in one basket."
This rather unfortunate analogy is further compounded by the evidence of a senior ambulance officer who disputes this fact. He stated that The Det. Supt. Initially arranged to have all the bodies in the gymnasium transferred to the Medico-legal Centre before 6 p.m. on the Saturday evening. It was estimated that all bodies would be at the Centre by 7 p.m. However, it was the Coroner (in whose jurisdiction the bodies were in) who decide that the formal identification process should be undertaken at the gymnasium. This dispute as to who made the decision serves to highlight not only the initial confusion but also the emerging cover up as unacceptable decisions were rationalised.
The gymnasium was divided into three. An area for the dead, an area which accomodated police officers, and an area for statement taking and counselling. Meanwhile those waiting to identify bodies sat outside on buses having been transported from the boys club and the hospitals. Polaroid photographs of the dead were numbered and placed on boards. Those searching for the missing were shown the photographs. If they recognised a photograph, they gave the number and then the corresponding body was brought to them. Having identified the body the person was then taken to a table and interviewed by the police. Although this was supposed to be the identification procedure it was also the beginnings of a criminal investigation. Literally minutes after identifying their loved ones, the bereaved were being asked how many pubs they had visited before the match!
The effect of the identification process and immediate investigation had a profound effect on people. There was no attempt at grouping the photographs so for example if someone was looking for a female they were still subject to looking through all the photographs. In one case a young man who had come across his wife dead on the pitch and had accompanied her body to the gymnasium still had to go through the ridiculous procedure of being transported to the boys club, waiting and then going back to the gymnasium were he was forced to look through all the photographs were he would find what he already knew to be there - a photograph of his dead wife. Another man who had given a very accurate description of his son to a police officer at the gymnasium in the afternoon only to be told that his son was not there had to go through the same procedure. He was quite literally sent round in a circle from the gymnasium to the hospitals, to the boys' club and back to the gymnasium: He stated:
"It was so hard to look at the photographs because you were looking at faces and praying to God that Chris [his son] wasn't there."
Sadly Barry Devonsides' son, Christopher, was there and his body was brought to his father in a body bag:
"They brought Chris on a trolley. He was in a bag. I walked through. They unzipped the bag and said, 'would you look down?' "
Immediately he had identified Christopher, Barry felt an arm on him and he was led away to a table where what can only be described as an interrogation began. Although this was supposed to be the identification process, this poor father minutes after identifying his dead son was being asked how many pubs they had stopped off at and how much alcohol they had consumed. This was not an isolated incident. This is how people were treated generally in the gymnasium.
There are so many harrowing stories told by families of their experiences. Retold here is the account of the mother of James Delaney (as told on the Channel 4 programme After Dark and first printed in Hillsborough and After:The Liverpool Experience. Coleman S et al).
"A social worker took us to the ground where our son was killed, and for my husband and I it was a terrible thing that we were taken where James was killed. As far as we were concerned we feel that they didn't give, not only our son, but the other ninety four poor people who were killed, they didn't give them any dignity…surely they could have taken all those poor people including our son either to a church, to a school…covered them, even if it was only a white paper sheet… When we got to the ground we had to look at these photographs to try and identify our son. We looked and looked, we couldn't recognise our son… eventually we did see our son… so we were led into the sports hall and when we walked in our son was lying on a trolley, inside this green zipped-up bag, number thirty- three, so his dad and I bent down to kiss and to talk to James, and as we stood up, there was a policeman who came from behind me and was trying to usher myself and my husband out, straight out of the hall. The total attitude was, you've identified number thirty-three, so go! So unfortunately…I went hysterical, I'm afraid to say, I had to ask if I could take our son away from the public's eye, again there was poor people, unfortunate people like ourselves being ushered into the hall and our James was there, in the public's eye, people looking down at his poor face. I also had to scream at these officers and ask them please to allow us privacy for the three of us to be together…thankfully the policemen pulled James over to another part of the hall… I started to examine my son's body, he had blood in his nostrils, blood in his teeth, his poor face was hardened with blood on the side of his cheek. His face was dirty, his hair was very, dirty and dusty…And in the meantime I was examining our son …My husband was ushered to a table to be asked questions. At which again I started to scream… I know these questions have got to be asked but as far as I was concerned there is a time and a place for everything… I thought it was only right that his dad should be with him - we went together to look for our son James, and that was time that was owed to us, because at the end of the day, when you carry a child for nine months, and you bring them into the world, it is your right to be with your child. We asked if we could possibly - we wanted to stay with James - we were told 'no' that we couldn't. So I asked if we could be allowed to come back to see James - we were told 'no' it was for identification only."
This control over the deceased continued over the next few days. Mrs Delaney continued her story:
"We went home to see our other children. James' sister Catherine wanted to come back to see her brother. We went to this medical centre we had to sit ver three hours…When we finally got to see our son James we weren't allowed any privacy. James was behind a glass screen - we weren't allowed to touch or kiss James, and when I mentioned to the doctor, why weren't we allowed to kiss and touch our own son and the reply was, when the autopsy's done you can touch and kiss your son as much as you like. We weren't asked about the autopsy …we were told."
James was finally brought home to his family. However, his family's distress was added to because of the condition of his body:
"At the end of the day when we eventually got our son home on the Wednesday… we brought James home to the warmth of his own house, before that we weren't even allowed to visit our son… if we were allocated half an hour each day it would have been some consolation to us. We were sitting in Ellesmere Port, our son was down in Hillsborough - our hearts were eaten away for the fact that he was lying there on his own. When we got our son home, our son was completely stripped of his dignity. Our son's head had a hole in the back of his skull, his top teeth were taken away from him, his chest was completely padded. I examined my son like I did when I went to see him the first time. That again is a mother's or father's right to do so."
Although difficult to read for the harrowing description it is the belief of many that testimonies such as Mrs Delaney's should never be forgotten and should serve as a reminder to people that human beings should never be treated this was ever again. The total lack of respect for the dead interfered with rites of passage and cut across cultural and religious values and beliefs.
In summing up it is obvious that not only was the gymnasium inappropriate as mortuary, the behaviour of those in charge was also wholly inappropriate. The crass insensitivity highlighted by the words of Mrs Delaney is further illustrated by the observation of a priest present in the gymnasium until the early evening:
"At five o'clock in the gymnasium there was row after row of bodies and all around the walls there were police officers sitting down eating chicken legs."