Seeds of Hillsborough tragedy sewn a ‘decade before’ jury told

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The seeds of the Hillsborough tragedy were sewn ten years before the tragedy - according to an expert structural engineer’s damning assessment of the Leppings Lane end of the ground.

John Cutlack slammed the height and layout of crush barriers at the end where the disaster claimed 96 lives, arguing they reduced its capacity by almost 2,400.

He also claimed 10 turnstiles too few were opened to cater for the amount of Liverpool fans on April 15, 1989.

Mr Cutlack was speaking on day 36 of the new Hillsborough inquests in Warrington.

The stadium design expert attended the hearing last month to give the jury evidence of the layout of Hillsborough ahead of its visit to the stadium.

Yesterday he was there again to give his expert opinion on the ground.

In a series of revelations, he said some ‘of the seeds of this disaster were sown in 1979’.

The recommended height of the crush barriers, along with a series of other safety regulations, was stipulated in the Green Guide to stadium safety.

The jury heard the guide was not legally binding and deviation was allowed from its rules.

But Mr Cutlack said: “Looking at all the huge volume of various witness statements that have been taken over the years, I think the word ‘flexibility’ has been seized on by a number of people as a means of extricating themselves from a position they rather wish they had not got into.”

Referring to the crush barrier guidance in the guide, he said of the 13 barriers in pens three and four – in the Leppings Lane central terraces – seven did not conform to regulations.

Three were marginally too high and four were substantially too low, some by as much as 27cm.

Mr Cutlack told the inquests: “Now, that is not marginally outside the guidance. 
“It is almost 300 per cent outside the guidance. 
“I think it is quite ridiculous to suggest that could in any way be viewed as a marginal deviation from the Green Guide.”

He said Dr Eastwood - who was Sheffield Wednesday’s consultant engineer at the time - said it was ‘acceptable’ because it meant the force from the barrier would be applied at about hip height.

Mr Cutlack said: “Unfortunately, what it displays to me is that Dr Eastwood didn’t understand the principles of what a crush barrier is meant to do.”

The height of the crush barriers is a serious issue as part of their role is to prevent the force of a crowd being pushed onto the people in front of it.

Mr Cutlack explained: “If it is at hip height, then if the force is applied from behind you, you just bend forward and, of course, in a crowd where you are already in a densely packed crowd, that force just goes forward to the next person in front of you.”

He said the gaps between the crush barriers on the same level were also seriously flawed.

The width between them should have been between 1.1m and 1.4m.

Of the nine barrier gaps, seven did not fall within those limits, and one gap was more than six metres wide.

Crucially, the flawed size and layout of the barriers in the Leppings Lane end should have had a substantial impact on the capacity in that area of the stadium.

Mr Cutlack revealed the safe capacity for the west terrace was 5,425, with a further 2,300 able to fit safely into the north west terrace.

The official ground capacity for those areas in 1989 was 7,200 and 2,900 respectively, meaning 2,375 too many people would have been in that part of the ground when it was sold out.

Mr Cutlack also said the gates in the pitch perimeter fence in pens three and four were too small and difficult to get to adding 10 turnstiles too few were made available to Liverpool fans on the day of the tragedy.

On that day, Reds fans had just 23 turnstiles allocated to them, compared to 60 made available to fans of Nottingham Forest.

The hearing continues.