Former detective and disaster victim identification expert Dick Venables tells Martin Smith how his life was changed by the events of April 1989
HE’S helped identify thousands of bodies all over the world, pieced together fragments from tsunamis and plane crashes to help trace their victims.
But when Dick Venables closes his eyes on a bad day he is always haunted by the same thing.
The desperate faces of the Hillsborough disaster victims.
Dick Venables was Detective Sergeant Venables back in those days, seconded for duties at Hillsborough for the 1989 FA Cup Semi Final between Nottingham Forest and Liverpool on April 15.
96 Liverpool supporters died that day and what he saw will haunt him for the rest of his life.
“I carry guilt for what happened that day and I will carry it to my grave,” said Dick Venables, now aged 54 and a world-renowned expert in Disaster Victim Identification who plans to tell his story in a new book.
“The only thing I have a problem with is Hillsborough. I can never come to terms with that. It could have been so much averted but in defence of my former employer (South Yorkshire Police) that kind of thing could have happened at any first division ground at that time with the crowd control fences up.
“In those days the overriding philosophy was to keep public order, not safety. On my bad days I can still see their faces in every detail, struggling behind the fence, begging for help and I can’t help them.
“I felt guilty and useless at the time. There were so many cops who couldn’t do anything except watch it unfold. Some officers tried to climb the fence to pull people out but the fences were angled in such a way as to make that impossible.
“People asked why we didn’t have cutting gear to get the fences down. We were at a football match. We could not be expected to forsee the need for that. I felt ashamed to be a copper because there was nothing I could do.
“I had joined 13 years before and sworn to protect life and property. My heart still goes out to the families of those who died. I realised that day that the worst thing that can happen to anyone is to lose a member of their family.”
In the years that followed the disaster miner’s son Dick Venables’ career took an unusual turn.
He went on to get involved in identifying bodies and designed training courses in victim recovery and mortuary procedures that have trained more than 3,000 officers from 37 UK forces.
Father of two and grandad to seven, Dick Venables has thought long and hard in the years since Hillsborough as to whether the career path he chose was an attempt by him to make amends for what happened that day.
“I’m often asked if my experiences that day are what made me pursue the career I did,” said Dick at his home in Rotherham.
“Maybe subconciously I did but I have never had the conscious thought that that’s what led to me doing what I did. My involvement was to remove the injured and dead from the terraces to the makeshift morgue in the sports hall and help where we could.
“I was also involved in searching the terraces for the belongings of the dead and cataloguing what we found. After we had done that we were finished.”
That day inevitably shaped his life as it did the lives of so many others.
By 1995 Dick Venables had become deeply involved in planning for disasters that was drafted in to help North Yorkshire police to set up their temporary mortuary following the Dunkeswick air disaster and was invited to join the police’s Major Disaster Advisory Team.
He went on to become a national expert and was deployed as advisor and mortuary operations manager follwing the Selby rail crash in 2001, the Morecambe Bay deaths of 2004, the Hotham air crash on Humberside in 2004, the Berkshire rail crash and Blackpool helicopter crash of 2006.
Dick retired from the police force in 2006 but continued to deliver DVI training to police forces until 2009.
“While ever I have a phone in my pocket I’m ready for the call and I will respond should I be needed,” he said.
“Looking back over my caereer for the book has brought back some tough times. You can’t just look at the good days. When it comes back to you it all comes back.
“Hillsborough shaped me. I don’t think I would be what I am now without it.
“I would like to think that some of my guilt from that day has been reduced by what I have done in the subsequent 20 years.
“The people of Liverpool will always have my utmost sympathy. The worst thing that can happen to anyone is to lose a relative like they lost theirs.”
It was written in the cards for Dick
IT WAS always on the cards that Dick Venables would be no stranger to death.
When he worked for South Yorkshire CID he went to a house in Rotherham to speak to a female burglary victim.
While he was there he noticed tarot cards spread on the kitchen table and ended up having a reading with the woman.
“It was remarkable,” said Dick.
“I’m not sure I really believe in all that stuff but she knew everything about my life.
“She kept turning the cards over and she couldn’t understand why the grim reaper card kept coming up.
“She was puzzled because the card kept appearing but it wasn’t related directly to me but to others I would come across.
“I’m not sure about that kind of thing but I have often wondered: am I being channelled? Is there a force guiding me?”
Dick helps to keep Webb’s diary in line
ONCE he was Howard Webb’s boss at Doncaster nick.
Now it’s the world’s number one referee who calls the shots...
Dick Venables was Detective Inspector when young Howard started in the force.
But today retired policeman Dick looks after Howard Webb’s business affairs - a job that takes him around the world.
“I was a local referee back then too and he was already a Football League linesman. We became good friends,“ said Dick who is also a former Wakefield Trinity Wildcats rugby league club director.
“Howard is the only English ref to be appointed to the European Championships this summer.
“He’s already done the World Cup final and the Champions League final so he has a chance of the biggest three honours in the game as a referee.
“He is constantly inundated with requests to go to functions and awards. I run his diary and handle his business affairs and I’m the one who has to say no to requests sometimes.
“Howard is on a five-year career break from the police force and is already a patron of four charities and works really hard away from refereeing.
“He does a terrific job as a referee. The levels of concentration required are around the same level as a Formula One driver.
“It’s a very demanding position to be in so I try to make it so the only thing he has to worry about is the football side.”