NEW inquests for the 96 Liverpool supporters killed in the Hillsborough disaster could be held after an independent panel, chaired by the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd James Jones, revealed that 41 of the victims might have survived with better medical care.
The panel was highly critical of the police, who, at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, at the neutral Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, had filtered fans into two already overcrowded pens. A barrier had collapsed, and in the ensuing crush, 96 fans had been killed and 766 injured.
The coroner at the original inquests had refused to hear evidence about what happened after 3.15 p.m. on the day of the tragedy, ruling that all the victims were either dead or beyond recovery by that time. This went unchallenged in Lord Justice Taylor's 1990 report.
But, by examining the coroners' reports on each of the victims, the Hillsborough Independent Panel found that almost half might have survived.
Dr Bill Kirkup, associate chief medical officer in the Department of Health, who served on the panel, said: "In total, 41 people had the potential to survive after the period of 3.15. What I can't say is how many of those could have been saved. But what I can say is that the potential is of that order of magnitude."
The panel was established by the previous government to gather and review evidence, including previously classified documents. More than 450,000 pages of documents from more than 80 organisations and individuals have now been made public by the panel, alongside a 395-page detailed analysis.
The Prime Minister told MPs on Wednesday afternoon that the Attorney General would consider the report "as soon as possible", before deciding whether to ask the High Court to overturn the original inquests.
David Cameron said that he was "profoundly sorry" for what he called the "double injustice" suffered by the victims' families: "the injustice of the appalling events, the failure of the state to protect their loved ones, and the indefensible wait to get the truth, and then the injustice of the denigration of the deceased - that they were somehow at fault for their own deaths".
He issued a profound apology "on behalf of the Government and the whole country".
Relatives of the victims spent the day in a series of day-long meetings at Liverpool Cathedral, at which they were briefed on the panel's findings.
People in Liverpool observed a two-minute silence as a mark of respect to those who were killed. During the silence, held at 3.06 p.m., the time when the game was halted, church bells tolled 96 times.
Bishop Jones said: "We have conducted this day very thoughtfully, so that the dignity of the families will be protected; so they can assimilate what we know will be very difficult material, and that they will not be short-changed in any way.
"On this panel, we all bring different expertise. The expertise I bring is as a pastor, and somebody who is committed to a just and fair world. That lies at the heart of the work we're doing in the panel: we have been looking for truth and justice."
On Wednesday, the Archbishop of Canterbury issued a brief statement: "I want to say, on behalf of the Bishops, that our thoughts and prayers are very much with the people of Liverpool and all affected by the Hillsborough tragedy on this day when the report is released. The Bishop of Liverpool has done a great service in steering this work to a conclusion and helping us as a nation to confront this deeply traumatic memory."
Afterwards, the chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, Margaret Aspinall, whose son James was killed in the disaster, welcomed the report: "They have exonerated all our fans. They have made our city proud today, but, most of all, they have made the 96 rest in peace for the first time."
A solicitor for the Hillsborough Family Support Group said that the panel's work showed the Hillsborough disaster was "the biggest cover-up in British legal history".
The report revealed that 164 police statements had been "significantly amended" after the event, and "negative comments" about the police operation had been removed from 116 of them.
The panel concluded that the disaster could have been avoided if known problems with the Leppings Lane entrance to the stadium had been taken into account.
Incidents of overcrowding in 1981 and 1987, and earlier in 1989, had alerted the authorities to the potential danger. "The risks were known, and the crush in 1989 was foreseeable," the report stated.
The panel was not a public inquiry, and did not hear from witnesses or take evidence; its terms of reference precluded it from making recommendations. But its findings will now be considered by the Government. Family members say that they hope criminal prosecutions for perverting the course of justice, or even unlawful killing, may follow.
The Bishop of Sheffield, Dr Steven Croft, said yesterday that "many in the diocese will have their own difficult memories of 15 April 1989 and the days which followed". A prayer for local churches to use is posted on the diocesan website.
Question of the Week: Should the authorities prosecute those whose actions are thought to have contributed to the death toll?