WIGAN’S former public health chief has told the Hillsborough inquiry of the emergency services’ disorganisation in the face of tragedy.
Prof John Ashton attended the FA Cup semi-final on April 15 1989 with his two teenaged sons and his nephew and soon found himself in the midst of the rescue and recovery operation.
Several people from Wigan borough were among Liverpool fans killed or injured in the crush minutes after kick-off at the Sheffield ground. In all 96 supporters died.
Addressing the Warrington inquests, the former North West director of public health said as soon as they arrived there was an “atmosphere of increasing anxiety and expressions of concern from the crowd about the pressure that people were under.”
Prof Ashton recalled telling an officer in a police Land Rover: “You’ve got to get a grip of this situation, it is out of control. There is going to be a tragedy.”
He entered the ground just after kick-off. His ticket was checked by a policemen as he headed towards his West Stand seat at which point a distressed man approached the bobby and said: “There are kids dying in there. You’ve got to do something.” But he said the officer did not respond.
When he got to the stand he saw people being pulled up from the terraces.
An emotional Prof Ashton had to pause for a moment when describing his then 24-year-old nephew helping to pull people from the pens below while lifeless-looking bodies were being carried onto the pitch.
He said he went to the Leppings Lane concourse in response to a tannoy call for doctors but, while assuming someone would be able to tell him what to do next, he approached several police officers but none was able to help.
Prof Ashton said he saw casualties being brought into the concourse and he began to institute a casualty clearing, or triage, system.
He said: “There were people who were very seriously ill or dead or different stages of consciousness, a lot of people with minor injuries, people who were in heightened emotional states, and a general atmosphere of hysteria and, you know, a really very distressing situation.”
He described a lack of equipment and said ambulances were slow to arrive at first.
In the statement made just days after the disaster, he said: “It is difficult to know how many lives might have been saved if the emergency response had been more effective. But, in my opinion, on this occasion, it was woefully inadequate.”
The inquests heard he was on a radio phone-in the evening after the tragedy to discuss the emergency response and he was later called at his then workplace - Liverpool University - by a Mr Alderslade who was the regional medical officer for Trent Health Authority.
He said: “Mr Alderslade told me that I should refrain from publicly criticising the emergency services. He told me that there had already been a meeting of the emergency services, and that they said that the ambulances had arrived promptly and that the emergency response had been good and adequate.”
The court heard that before Prof Ashton left the ground on the day he comforted a sobbing young policeman.
Prof Ashton said “He said something like, you know, ‘The senior officers were useless and they’re going to blame us now’. Of course the irony was that they didn’t blame the junior policemen, they blamed the supporters.”