Cumbria's health chief talks about the horrors of Hillsborough and how it has had a legacy in the county (From The Westmorland Gazette)
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Cumbria's health chief talks about the horrors of Hillsborough and how it has had a legacy in the county
PROFESSOR John Ashton set off with his young son and nephew to watch a football match on April 15, 1989.
What they actually witnessed was the worst stadium disaster in British history.
They found themselves in a ‘theatre of death’ where 96 Liverpool fans were killed in a crush at the Leppings Lane End of Hillsborough in the FA Cup semi-final with Nottingham Forest.
He was engulfed by ‘bloody chaos’ and says emergency services were completely out of their depth and ill-equipped’.
As an experienced doctor, Prof Ashton was at the centre of the mission to save lives on the pitch. He sprang into action and immersed himself in the chaos.
“I became aware of the almost complete lack of any systematic approach to dealing with the dozens of casualties walking, lying, falling and already dead,” said Prof Ashton, Cumbria’s Director of Public Health. “At that point they were dispatching casualties into ambulances with no regard to their severity.
“There was virtually no resuscitation equipment to hand and the best that could be done was to make sure that those who might most benefit from hospital attention were most likely to receive it.”
He told the Lord Justice Taylor Inquiry in 1989 that he put a triage system in place and took charge of categorising and attending to casualties. He described the supporters as being ‘fantastic’ whereas the emergency response had been ‘woefully inadequate.’ With another GP he started at one end of the line of bodies and began certifying deaths.
“I certified about six. I wrote down the time of death and put my signature on to pieces of paper and attached them to the clothing of the dead with safety pins,” said Prof Ashton.
“The question now is did they come off or were they deliberately taken off because of the issue of the times.”
A Hillsborough Independent Panel last week revealed a cover-up had taken place with fans being blamed for the loss of lives.
It revealed that senior police officers had led a deliberate campaign to blame dead fans for the tragedy.
The panel found that 164 police statements were altered, 116 of them to remove or alter ‘unfavourable’ comments about the policing of the match and the unfolding disaster. It also found 41 lives could have been saved.
Prof Ashton said he never believed the media reports or the official accounts of the tragedy. He said that he saw no evidence of violent fans forcing their way into the stadium, robbing or urinating on the dead.
But he recalls witnessing complete ‘incompetence’ from police and emergency services and said: “If there had been a better response then some of the people would have survived.”
“Lord Taylor said that I was wrong that the ambulances were slow and that there were inadequate resuscitation equipment and a failure to implement triage,” he said.
He claims his professional integrity was ‘assaulted’ at the Taylor Inquiry and now plans to take legal action against Lord Justice Taylor. “After giving evidence I felt violated. I have had to live with damage to my professional reputation for 23 years and so I am taking legal advice about it.”
Prof Ashton’s evidence is referred to several times in the Bishop Jones report.
“The report makes it clear that my testimony was true but I am angry that my reputation was besmirched because of a systematic conspiracy.”
He said he was now calling for West Yorkshire’s Chief Constable Norman Bettison – who last week said that he had not intended to suggest that Liverpool fans had hindered the police during the disaster – to hand back his Honorary Fellowship from Liverpool John Moores University.
Prof Ashton, said: “Now it is about getting justice. It was orchestrated corruption and we need to make sure that those who were guilty of the corruption are prosecuted.”
He said that after the disaster he had a passion to ‘get things right’ in regards to emergency health planning and said that his experiences on that fateful day in 1989 had shaped the way major disasters in Cumbria had been handled.