Liverpool fans became ‘angry’ and the mood ‘nastier’ as thousands of supporters descended for the big FA cup tie, a retired police officer told the Hillsborough inquests today.
And the mood darkened as ‘frustrated’ fans tried to get into the ground ‘by hook or by crook’ in time for the 3pm kick off, the hearing was told.
Graham McKay, a former senior officer with South Yorkshire Police, claimed some fans had ‘taken drink’ and were ‘loud, aggressive and utterly selfish’.
Later he supervised the setting up of a temporary mortuary in the stadium gym as the ‘enormity’ of the disaster developed.
Mr McKay told the hearing: “I was no stranger to sudden, violent and unnatural death.
“As a detective I had seen more than my share. But nothing in my service prepared me for the events of that afternoon.”
Ninety-six Liverpool fans were crushed to death in the central pens behind the goal on the Leppings Lane terrace as the FA Cup Semi Final against Nottingham Forest began at the stadium in Sheffield on April 15, 1989.
The crushing took place after an entry and exit gate, gate C, had been opened at 2.52pm allowing an estimated 2,000 fans crowded at the turnstiles to stream into the ground.
Many headed straight down a tunnel below the seated upper section, leading directly into the packed central pens behind the goal on the Leppings Lane terrace, where the supporters were crushed.
On the day Mr McKay was a detective superintendent in charge of two squads of plain clothes officers targeting pick-pockets and car thieves.
Mr McKay, stationed on Leppings Lane, said he felt ‘relief’ when Gate C was opened and, ‘like a boiler bursting’, fans massed around the turnstile streamed into the ground.
“I was concerned someone was going to die in the throng at the turnstiles,” he said.
Mr McKay said he thought the fans would ‘disperse’ inside the ground.
But over the course of the next few hours after the disaster he got a ‘good idea’ of what had happened.
He said: “The fans had gone en masse down the tunnel, barriers had collapsed, fans had fallen on top of one another and the tragedy occurred.
“The question of fans pouring down the tunnel had never been perceived. If that problem had been perceived somebody would do something about it.”
Christina Lambert QC, counsel to the inquests, asked him whether there had been any discussion about why the entrance to the tunnel had not been barricaded, as it had been in past matches so fans were filtered to other side pens along the terrace.
Mr McKay said there had been no discussion of that matter.
Earlier the witness told the inquest he arrived at Leppings Lane about half an hour before kick off.
He said there was a ‘sizeable crowd’ building up and as kick-off approached fans were becoming ‘frustrated’.
Mr McKay added: “Not behaving badly, but impatient.”
At one point he went into the crowd but withdrew after becoming concerned for his own safety as pressure continued to build with fans arriving at the turnstiles as the clock ticked down to 3pm.
Mr McKay continued: “All of them wanting desperately to get into that ground and as kick-off approached the urgency became more severe.
“I remember a drink being thrown and striking one of the mounted officers.”
Miss Lambert QC questioned the witness about his ‘impression’ of police control of the crowd outside the turnstiles.
Mr McKay said: “I don’t think there was control of the crowd. They were overwhelmed. I don’t know how that crowd could’ve been controlled.”
The witness said he had heard estimates of the size of the crowd backed up at the turnstiles at this time as between 3,000 and 5,000 people.
He continued: “They wanted to get into the ground, all becoming increasingly frustrated and the nearer we got to kick-off the nastier the mood became, the more angry people became.”
Mr McKay said the fans were not ‘acting in concert’ but they had a ‘shared objective’ to get into the ground ‘by hook or by crook’.
He added: “I think control was lost in the same manner as King Canute lost control of the North Sea. He was overwhelmed.”
Asked about the behaviour of fans, Mr McKay said: “Absolutely frustrated and determined to get into the ground. When gate C opened and the floods of people started going in, people from Leppings Lane, certainly I would not say they were falling down drunk, but many of them had taken drink to such an extent that their standards of normal behaviour was lowered. They were loud, aggressive and utterly selfish.”
After gate C was opened Mr McKay then went inside the ground, heading for the gymnasium, being used as a canteen, for a cup of tea.
He then heard there were problems and one of his officers told him ‘there was 20 people dead in the crowd’.
Mr McKay ordered the canteen tables to be cleared away and the gym was hastily converted into a casualty bureau and temporary mortuary.
He said the scene at the gym was “utter confusion” as casualties, some living, some dead, began to arrive, carried there by fans, some “worse for drink” others “consumed by grief”, he said.
Mr McKay added: “There were scuffles breaking out around and over bodies, related to grief as I saw it, I don’t think it’s fair to suggest that they were caused by drink.”
Another officer then told Mr McKay the gym would not be able to accommodate all the bodies, “that was the enormity of it”, the witness added.
The hearing was adjourned until Monday.