Since the jury’s conclusions were delivered after the Hillsborough Inquests the focus has rightly been on the failures of the South Yorkshire Police in general and the senior officers in particular. After all the jury concluded that the SYP were mainly responsible for the disaster and the terrible loss of life. But the South Yorkshire Metropolitan Ambulance Service [SYMAS] also failed badly that day and as a result of those failures the death toll was higher than it would have been if a competent and effective rescue effort had been launched.
In a subsequent article I will consider the role played by the ambulance service in the Inquests but before that I want to consider the response by SYMAS to the disaster itself.
Until the publication of the Hillsborough Independent Panel [HIP] report in September 2012 the ambulance service thought they had got away with it at Hillsborough. Lord Taylor, no doubt with his eye on the actual causes of the disaster rather than the aftermath, exonerated SYMAS in his report. As a result of the crass decision of the Coroner at the original Inquests in 1990-91 to impose a wholly artificial cut-off at 3.15pm, SYMAS again escaped any scrutiny of their actions or lack of them. As a result Mr Page, the Chief Officer of SYMAS was able to declare “victory” after publication of the Taylor report. In a review published by Mr Page he claimed that “The Hillsborough Disaster in terms of Ambulance Service provision and response was a successful exercise.” The insensitivity and lack of insight displayed in that choice of language tells you all you need to know about the arrogance of many public authorities when things go wrong.
The truth of course is rather different. In answering question 14 in the jury questionnaire in 2016 the Hillsborough Inquests jury found that errors or omissions by SYMAS caused or contributed to the loss of lives in the Disaster. By way of explanation for their answers the jury added that “SYMAS officers at the scene failed to ascertain the nature of the problem at Leppings Lane.” They also noted that “The failure to recognise and call a Major Incident led to delays in responses to the emergency.”
By way of supplement to the St John Ambulance volunteers, some of whom it should be recorded did more than could be expected of them that day, SYMAS provided one ambulance and four members of staff at the semi-final match. The ambulance was parked near the gymnasium. The four members of staff were stood behind the goal line at the Kop end close to the north-east corner. A photograph taken by a supporter in the north stand at 14.59 [the scoreboard clock can be clearly see in the photo] shows all of the gates in the perimeter fences open and a serious crush taking place in the central pens. Mr Page agreed during questioning that the photo showed an emergency situation. He also agreed that a major incident should have been declared by the police at 14.59.
Having apparently seen something afoot at the Leppings Lane end, at 15.03 two SYMAS officers can be seen on the CCTV footage taking a leisurely stroll down the pitch in front of the north stand towards Leppings Lane taking over a minute to cover approximately 90 yards. When they arrived at the Leppings Lane end they then walked along the track behind the goal past pens 6 and 5 before reaching pen 4. Watching their progress it seems as if they were more interested in the fans who had already escaped the crush and were sitting on the ground just off the pitch. Somehow or other the two ambulance staff managed, or at least so they claimed, not to see the crush happening literally beside them or hear any of the anguished cries of people being crushed to deaths a few feet from them.
By the time Superintendent Greenwood, the senior officer under Mr Duckenfield, with responsibility for the inside of the stadium had run onto the pitch to get the referee to stop the match, Station Officer Eason and Qualified Ambulanceman Chippendale had made their way around the back of the goal at the Leppings Lane end, meaning they were by then close to the gate to Pen 3 where many of the dead and dying were packed. In one of the most poignant moments of that day’s events and in an act that perfectly encapsulated the staggering incompetence on display that day Messrs Eason and Chippendale walked across the penalty area just as Greenwood was coming the other way. The dimensions of the penalty area allow us to plot their positions precisely. Just as Eason and Chippendale cross the six-yard box the CCTV footage shows Greenwood was standing more or less on the penalty spot. In other words the two parties, one being the senior police officer inside the ground and the other being the senior SYMAS staff member on duty, were no more than 6 yards apart. For all the difference it made they might as well have been 6 miles apart. On the CCTV it can clearly be seen that neither group even acknowledged the existence of the other never mind taking the obvious opportunity to stop and inquire of the other party, what was happening, what needed to be done to deal with the situation and who was going to ensure that a major incident was immediately declared. So much for the importance of liaison between the emergency services and the need quickly to establish command and control of which the Major Incident Plans of both organisations made such great play.
So it was that a further chance to save those caught in the crush was wasted as more vital minutes slipped by with no adequate response from either the police or the ambulance service. In fact it was not until 15.21 that Mr Eason finally called a major incident over the radio in his ambulance to SYMAS HQ.
Photographs of the pitch as the disaster unfolded that afternoon show an increasingly chaotic situation. Fans escaping the crush had nowhere else to go and before long hundreds of police officers had joined them on the pitch. But for several minutes immediately after the players had left the pitch was almost entirely empty. If proper command and control procedures had been implemented the police had plenty of officers there who could immediately have staked out a large area of the pitch at the Leppings Lane end into which the injured and the dead could have been taken. But because neither police nor ambulance service had the wit to organise anything that day, when the increasingly badly injured were eventually taken out of the pens from about 3.15 onwards the pitch was already full of people and the dead and dying where simply dropped wherever a small space appeared. As the numbers of injured increased so the scene came more and more to resemble a battlefield. Causalities were too close to each other giving insufficient space for rescuers to work properly on them.
There was no proper system of triage where casualties are assessed as to their prospects of survival and accordingly prioritised for transport to hospital. Again due to the chaos that the hopeless inefficiency of SYP and SYMAS caused, only four ambulances, one of which was the St John Ambulance, ever got on to the pitch, leaving over 30 stranded and virtually useless outside the ground on Penistone Road. Farcically, a number of SYMAS officers tried to make all sorts of excuses for not bringing ambulances on to the pitch, claiming they might get bogged down on what was manifestly a dry pitch or would be besieged by desperate supporters, claims that with proper organisation were as ridiculous as they were insensitive. The result was that the dead and dying had to be carried a distance of about 150 yards from the pitch to the gymnasium behind the north stand. As is well known the lack of stretchers meant that fans had to tear down advertising hoardings to use as makeshift stretchers. And as the CCTV footage so amply shows large numbers of Liverpool supporters, comfortably outnumbering those police officers who did at least join in rather than standing around looking totally useless, did the bulk of the heavy carrying of their fellow supporters. So much for Liverpool fans being drunk that day.
The urgent need to get the injured out of the pens should have been obvious therefore by no later than 14.59. The SYMAS ambulance already at the ground that day, as well as other emergency ambulances, carried amongst its equipment bolt-cutters, normally used surprisingly enough for cutting bolts on locks but also helpful to release trapped passengers from cars involved in traffic accidents. In other words pretty robust items. Again any half-witted emergency officer should have thought that they might be rather useful to cut down the perimeter fences. But they were never deployed that afternoon. A number of SYMAS officers, to their eternal shame, claimed that the bolt-cutters would not have been able to cut through the fences at the front of pens 3 and 4! Such farcical and utterly pathetic excuses entirely ignore the CCTV evidence that in fact the fences were eventually torn down at about 15.18 literally with their bare hands and feet by supporters assisted by some police officers.
No one blames SYMAS for causing the disaster itself and once SYMAS HQ began to understand what was happening many ambulances were despatched to Hillsborough. But the hopeless failures of the senior SYMAS staff already at the ground fatally compromised the rescue effort. There was overwhelming evidence from the Inquests that with a speedy and efficient emergency response many of those who died would have had a better chance of survival and the death toll would not have been so high. And that is the measure of the appalling failures of SYMAS that day.