Hillsborough Disaster, 1989

On this day in 1989, Francis Joseph McAllister was one of 96 Liverpool Football Club supporters crushed to death at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield during a semi-final match against Nottingham Forest.[1] 

Francis McAllister grew up in Liverpool, but at the time of the disaster he was working as a fireman in London. On the day of the match, he drove up to Sheffield and met with a crowd of friends who had travelled together from Liverpool.[2] His brother-in-law, John Thomas, was among them. Although they met in a pub, none of them appeared inebriated to the independent witnesses who later testified at various inquests; Francis himself did not drink at all. The men had tickets for different sections, so they split up when they arrived at the grounds. McAllister’s ticket was for a seated part of the venue, but he preferred to stand and so he had swapped tickets with one of his friends. In the confusion of the crowd outside the gates on Leppings Lane, however, nobody collected his ticket. There was no one to direct the crowd, either, and when the gates were opened and the waiting fans surged in, Francis was one of far too many who went straight down the tunnel into pen number 3.  

A few minutes into the game, when people began to climb over the perimeter fence or be pulled by others into the stands above, the match was stopped. Liverpool fans had become notorious for hooliganism, and initially even some of the other fans believed a pitch invasion was underway. But those who made it over the fence did not rush the field; instead, they collapsed onto the ground.[3] Unfortunately, the police had been so thoroughly prepared for unruly fans that some of them found it difficult to grasp what was actually happening. Instead, it was mostly other fans, some injured themselves, who pulled people out, tearing down advertising boards to use as stretchers for the dead and dying, and tried to save lives.

After the game had been abandoned and the fans asked to leave, Francis’s friends met as planned in the car park. But he and Nicholas Joynes,
another of the group, never turned up. The others waited until about 7 pm and then went looking for their missing mates. They searched local hospitals and consulted the growing list of injured, but it wasn’t until nearly midnight that two of them were admitted to the makeshift mortuary set up at the football ground. There they identified the bodies of Francis McAllister and Nicholas Joynes.

The Hillsborough disaster was the worst stadium disaster in UK history (which has seen a few) and one of the worst sports-related disasters in the world. It was a tragedy because it could have been avoided to begin with, because lives might have been saved had it been handled differently, and because of the infamous cover-up by South Yorkshire Police, which saw the fans themselves blamed for a disaster that in fact resulted from a combination of poor stadium design and police mismanagement. Details of the families’ 23-year quest for justice are available elsewhere, but none of those most responsible have been prosecuted, and it was not until last year – when an independent panel of inquiry issued a damning indictment of just about everyone except the victims – that the government formally apologised for its own role in obstructing the search for truth.[4]

Francis Joseph McAllister was laid to rest at Yew Tree Cemetery on the 21st of April, after a memorial service at St Margaret’s Church in Huyton.[5]

Copyright (c) Lynn McAlister, 2013

[1] Ninety-four, including McAllister, died at the grounds. Two more died later in hospital having never regained consciousness. The youngest victim was ten years old. 
[2] The events of McAllister’s last day are reconstructed based on the inquest into the death of Francis Joseph McAllister and witness statements by the following people: McAllister’s father; John Thomas; Leslie Guy; Roy Williams; witness N9152, an unidentified Liverpool supporter; and witness N6467, a local woman who assisted McAllister’s friends in the disaster’s aftermath.
[3] They were the lucky ones. Many survivors recall that the crush in pens 3 and 4 became so great they literally could not move, let alone climb over the fence; indeed, most of those who died did so because they were simply unable to expand their lungs to breathe. An excellent collection of first-hand accounts can be found in The Day of the Hillsborough Disaster: A Narrative Account (Taylor, Ward and Newburn, eds.).
[4] British PM sorry for Hillsborough disaster ‘injustice’; coincidentally, one of the two people pictured in the photograph that accompanies this article is Francis McAllister. See also FA apologises for Hillsborough disaster.