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The pain remains from Hillsborough

Even 7,305 days on, city buses stilled. Trains paused. Subways rested. Taxis pulled over and idled. Ferries shut off and let the river nudge them. Pubs held two-minute silences. Radio stations hushed.

At precisely 3:06 p.m. on Wednesday, a metropolitan area of 800,000 strived to sound like a small town, even inside a stadium renowned as one of the loudest on Earth, where organizers of a memorial for the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough soccer tragedy expected about 10,000 for tribute.

An astonishing 30,000 filed from long, snaking queues into Liverpool’s Anfield Stadium in a bracing wind that rippled the organist’s sheet music, and they continued to file in at 3:06 when they, too, forged a vast quiet broken only by babies and toddlers and church bells ringing 96 times in the distance.

Even on a planet with its share of sports zealots and sports calamities, it might be hard to find a community that mastered the fine art of remembering the fallen more durably than the supporters of the Liverpool Football Club of England’s top soccer league.

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It has embedded into their cores that 96 of their fellow fans died on April 15, 1989, when too many people hurried through a narrow tunnel right before a big match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield, 58 miles away. They know how the match started before anybody realized until it stopped at 3:06, and they know of the 766 injuries, and they have heard all the accounts of those who could not hold down a job because of the post-traumatic stress.

It has haunted their brains that the scene had an uncommon grisliness, that some died standing up from compression asphyxiation, that a government inquiry cited police for mismanagement of crowd control, that police denied ambulances access to the stadium because they inaccurately suspected mass hooliganism.

It has angered up their bloodstreams that the tabloid the Sun capsized a whole raft of ethics with an uncorroborated cover story charging Liverpool fans at the scene with vile acts, that the uninformed-but-opinionated dished some blame on the fans, that police officials altered their stories and that no conviction or confession of dereliction has come.

It has even lent them a shred of comfort that Hillsborough initiated the rethinking that led to England’s safe stadiums of today. After a series of catastrophes minted English football’s reputation as unsafely ill-mannered in the 1980s, people “saw the people that had been killed at Hillsborough and heard their stories,” said John Williams, a sociologist at the University of Leicester. “That woke up the general population.” Still, inside Anfield, the sorrow persists such that Hillsborough has its own anthem, which Lee Roy James sang on Wednesday, including the lyric, “If a lesson’s been learned, it’s a lesson too late.”

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The fans cheered a mention of Sheffield citizens who let Liverpool fans use house phones in those pre-cellular days. They cheered a mention of those fans and ambulance workers who tried frantic CPR on others. They cheered at the memory of distraught Liverpool players from the 1989 roster.

They booed when Andy Burnham, the federal government’s secretary of state for culture, media and sport, said, “I represent the prime minister.” They interrupted Burnham’s remarks with an impassioned singing of “Justice for the 96.”

They stood and cheered repeatedly as Trevor Hicks, the president of the Hillsborough Fan Support Group, spoke; Hicks lost two teenage daughters that tragic day. They came with knowing, weather-beaten faces, and with surprising numbers of faces too young to have been born in April 1989.

So many people came that they sat in all four stadium sides. Beside Hicks stood a case with 96 candles in glass holders emblazoned with names. A bell tolled with the reading of each name, and the 100-minute service ended with two current Liverpool-raised players -- Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher -- on the pitch and 96 red balloons released skyward in a fresh drizzle.

How do Liverpool fans refrain from the natural course of the fading memory? Williams sees two factors. “This club has a kind of cultural heritage,” he said. And then after Hillsborough, “Everyone escaped censure, so there’s the whole feeling of injustice, which is actually a central feature of the culture of the city itself.”

As for the heightened sense of community, “It’s just the way we are,” said lifelong Liverpudlian Amy Ormesher. She stood on a sidewalk near the permanent Hillsborough memorial. Below the memorial, flowers piled knee deep. Lacing the nearby stadium gates, hundreds of scarves and shirts from all manner of clubs -- even the loathed Manchester United -- expressed well wishes. Tucked within everywhere were laminated papers with poems. “Dear Son of Mine Forever,” wrote one parent to a victim named Anthony, concluding, “Every day for the last 20 years/I wished you were here.”

In the rare case of Liverpool, clearly thousands would have written the same.

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chuck.culpepper@yahoo.com


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