UK Police Chief Admits Responsibility For Hillsborough Tragedy

Former Chief Superintendent of South Yorkshire Police David Duckenfield arrives to give evidence to the Hillsborough Inquest in Warrington, northern England March 10, 2015. Reuters / Andrew Yates

The British police commander who was in charge at the Hillsborough football stadium in 1989, when 96 fans were crushed to death, has admitted that he was at fault for one of the world's worst football disasters, agreeing that his failure to close a tunnel was "the direct cause" of the deaths.

David Duckenfield today agreed that he "froze" as the disaster unfolded during the FA Cup semi-final at the Sheffield stadium between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest on 15 April 1989. He had earlier denied the claims that he had "bottled it" as the catastrophe played out in front of him.

On the day, Liverpool fans could only gain access to their allocated stand, the Leppings Lane stand, through seven old turnstiles, causing overcrowding outside the stadium. Duckenfield ordered a gate open to ease the crush but this resulted in thousands of people swarming through to the already overcrowded terrace pens, leading to the fatal crushing, killing 96.

Duckenfield, 70, has been giving evidence at an inquest into the disaster and has admitted that he led a "hopeless" police response to the crush. He also apologised to the relatives of those killed in the disaster on Friday but a lawyer representing the families accused him of "desperately trying to stick to denying any responsibility" until the new inquest was launched.

He admitted that he had lied about fans opening the exit gate themselves to enter the ground. "Everybody knew the truth, the fans and police knew the truth that we'd opened the gates," he said last Wednesday, adding that he would regret lying about that fact "to his dying day".

The jury at the inquest was told that the former police chief had three minutes in which he could "consider the consequences" of opening the gate to a large crowd of fans. Duckenfield denied that he had knowledge of access points to the stands or had "concealed" any knowledge of this.

The lawyer questioning Duckenfield, Paul Greaney QC, condemned the police commander's decision to open the gate while leaving the tunnel open. "Never mind a competent match commander or whatever phrase is being used, it might only take a child of average intelligence to realise what the consequences of your decision might be," he said. Duckenfield replied: "I didn't think of it on the day, sir, because of the pressure I was under."

In the enquiry, Duckenfield last week conceded he had made a "serious mistake" in not thinking that the fans would run down the tunnel, nor make efforts to close the gate as fans flooded in. Duckenfield has told the enquiry that he was not the best person to lead the policing operation at the football stadium on the day of the disaster. 54,000 people attended the game and Duckenfield was appointed to his position 19 days before.

Greaney also challenged Duckenfield's inaction as the disaster began: "Can you not tell us whether on that day in that situation you simply froze?" Duckenfield replied that he thought it "fair to say that we were all in a state of shock".

Greaney countered that it was a match commander's role to "get past any feelings of shock" to which Duckenfield replied: "Yes, sir, but I am human."

The inquest continues.