HILLSBOROUGH: '˜I was hauled to safety' - Paul's story

The look of sheer disbelief and horror on their faces speaks volumes.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 28th April 2016, 2:56 pm
Updated Wednesday, 4th May 2016, 3:12 pm
Photo Neil Cross
Paul Walmsley who was at the Hillsborough tragedy and was pulled up to the stand above and then helped pull others up.
Photo Neil Cross Paul Walmsley who was at the Hillsborough tragedy and was pulled up to the stand above and then helped pull others up.

Paul Walmsley and two of his friends were among a number of football fans pulled to safety from the human crush to the stand above at the Hillsborough Stadium on April 15 1989.

Moments after being plucked from the crowd where they had been struggling to breathe because of the sheer mass of people, Paul and his friends looked down incredulously unable to comprehend they had only seconds earlier been a part of that.

The trio swung into action and helped pull a few others to safety before moving back and breathing a sigh of relief that they had escaped the frightening situation.

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Paul Walmsley at Hillsborough (top, above man in white shirt) standing with his friend John Barlow (to Paul's left in sunglasses) in the stand just after being pulled up to safety. Their friend Nigel Newman is out of shot.

Paul, now 47, who lives in Adlington near Chorley with wife Nadia and six-year-old daughter Emma, says even then, the true nature and extent of the tragedy had not fully sunk in.

Paul, who works as an account manager, is also executive cabinet member for planning and public protection at Chorley Council, says: “They say a picture speaks a thousand words and the utter disbelief and horror on our faces says it all.

“Once we had been hauled to safety, we could not believe what we could see and what we had just been in the middle of.”

Paul, who was living in Eccleston near Chorley at the time of the Hillsborough disaster, has been a Liverpool supporter all his life after his dad ignited his passion for the team.

Paul Walmsley at Hillsborough (top, above man in white shirt) standing with his friend John Barlow (to Paul's left in sunglasses) in the stand just after being pulled up to safety. Their friend Nigel Newman is out of shot.

Paul explains: “My dad Alan was born in Manchester and his dad and his older brother were Manchester United fans.

“But at the age of about eight or nine, my dad had something wrong with his legs and had to have his legs in plaster for a couple of years and was admitted to Alder Hey Hospital in Liverpool.

“His family actually moved to Liverpool to be closer to him.

“While my dad was in there, the Liverpool team visited the children’s ward and he had his photo taken with them.

“From that day on, my dad became a Liverpool fan and I followed in his footsteps.

“I have been a football fan all my life and have always supported Liverpool and went on my first Liverpool match at the age of five or six.”

When he was younger, Paul used to go on Liverpool matches with his dad and older brother but from the age of 15 or 16, he began going to them with his friends.

He recalls: “Going to football matches became part of my formative years.

“It was exciting and I loved the camaraderie, the laughs, the silliness and watching a great team playing great football.

“There were mainly three of us who went to Liverpool matches together and we became season ticket holders from 1987.”

Paul, a former pupil of Bishop Rawstorne in Croston, was thrilled when he and his friends bought tickets for the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at the Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield.

He says: “I remember feeling excitement at getting the tickets and the prospect of going to Wembley if Liverpool won.

“Going with your mates made it even more thrilling as it was like a weekend away.

“I went with my friends Nige and John and John drove us there.

“Traffic was quite heavy and there were a few delays so we didn’t get there as early as we would have liked.

“We got there at about 2pm and kickoff was 3pm.

“We walked down to the ground and got in about 2.20pm.”

Paul recalls noticing there was a lack of organisation and co-ordination as soon as they arrived.

He explains: “We noticed there was little or no organisation outside the grounds.

“You would normally expect there to be people telling you where to queue or basic crowd control.

“If you are going to your home ground, you know where to go and which entrances to use.

“But when you are going somewhere new, you don’t know where to head to.

“We went through the main gates in good spirits and people were being frisked as they went in and I chose a policewoman to frisk me for a laugh and a giggle.

“Everyone around us seemed in good spirits and looking forward to the game. We went in through the main tunnel in front of us as that is what we could see and there was no one guiding or pointing people to side entrances or telling them to go elsewhere.”

Paul remembers that he and his friends were surprised at how full the terrace already was at 2.20pm.

The trio usually liked to stand behind the goal, but as this area was already full, they stood about two-thirds of the way up the stand towards the right of the goal.

Paul says: “As time ticked on, we started feeling crushed, but at this point, we weren’t concerned or panicked; we just felt a bit uncomfortable.

“After about 10 or 15 minutes, it became more packed and we said to each other that we were comfortable as much as anything for the viewing of the game.

“We discussed where we could go to get a better view and one of us suggested moving further forward.

“I think it was me who said: ‘It’s only going to be worse the further forward we go so there’s no point.’

“As it got closer to kickoff, the terrace became even fuller and at times, you felt as though you were being lifted off your feet. We ended up swept to the right and standing behind where we had started.

“It is very fortunate that we were swept that way as if we had been swept the other way, it could have been a totally different story.

“We were trying to stay on our feet and together and that’s the way we were swept.

“It was just the natural way we were swept as more people piled in.”

Paul remembers at kickoff noticing a lad standing on the fence waving at people to go back and he thought: ‘Well we can’t go anywhere either as we’re stuck.’

As the minutes ticked by, the realisation sunk in that there was a major problem and the match was stopped six minutes after kickoff.

Paul says: “People were starting to climb over the fence and there was a feeling of panic across the crowd that something terrible was happening.

“The first thing that made me think: ‘This is really bad’ is when I saw a young lad being dragged over the fence and he looked lifeless.

“It was awful and it all felt very surreal.

“By this time, we were virtually at the back of the stand, but it was still very tight so we thought to ourselves: ‘Christ, what must it be like at the front?’”

People then began to get pulled up to the stand above and Paul’s friend Nige was the first of them to get hauled up. He then helped pull John up and someone else pulled Paul up.

Paul says: “While I was being pulled up, I remember feeling wary about falling and being dropped into the crowd.

“But I thought: ‘At least I’m getting out of whatever this is.’”

Paul recalls that as more people were pulled up, the stand started getting crowded and he remembers telling people to pull a couple of people up and then move further back to the stand to create more space.

He says: “I was telling people who were sitting down to move away from their seats as the game was obviously not going to happen.

“I remember there was this one fellow with his boy of about seven or eight who began swearing and saying: ‘I’m not moving. I’ve paid for these seats.’

“The gravity of the situation had obviously not sunk in with him.”

Paul remembers looking down from the stand and seeing dead bodies.

He says: “I remember seeing a clump of people stood up together with no one around them and they were crushed and looked dead.

“We just felt sheer disbelief and after the initial shouts and screams for help, there was silence as people found it difficult to take in.”

Paul remembers seeing a policeman stood there doing nothing and he saw red and began shouting at him.

Paul recalls: “I was only 20 and I remember shouting at this policeman saying: ‘Get something done! Organise people and get them out of the way.’

“What struck me about the whole thing, even at that age, was that it was the fans rescuing people and doing the organising rather than the police.

“It might be because they weren’t given any direction or were just stunned.

“But you expect more, not just because of their job but as human beings.

“Things had changed and something major was happening so they couldn’t just stand there guarding their set area any more.

“My first feelings even then were at how rubbish and ineffectual the police were.”

Paul says at this stage, although he knew there fatalities, he could not have imagined the sheer scale of them.

The friends left the ground and joined the thousands of fans flooding out and walked in virtual silence to the car.

They stopped at the first service station where they found lots of other Liverpool fans queuing for the payphones.

Paul explains: “With there being no mobile phones in those days, people wanted to phone home and tell their families they were OK.”

Paul is filled with emotion as he remembers his own telephone call. “The phone was engaged the first time I tried, so I tried again and my dad picked up.

“He just said: ‘Paul?’ There was such panic and desperation in his voice.

“I said ‘Yes’ and he answered: ‘Thank God’ and we put the phone down soon after as I knew there were others waiting.

“It suddenly sunk in that there were people at home worried sick not knowing if their loved ones had survived or not.

“My dad had been frantic as he knew I always stood behind the goal at matches.”

It was while Paul and his friends were at the service station that a tearful man came in saying he and his son had become split up in the terraces and he could not find him.

Paul says: “I always wonder if he ever saw his son again.

“Then another man came in and said: ‘There’s 93 dead now.’

“That’s when the enormity of it all hit us. And of course that number rose to 96.

“We got in the car and turned the radio on and they played: “Amazing Grace” saying it was Bill Shankley’s favourite song.

“Every time I hear that song, it takes me back to that day at Hillsborough.”

Paul says although he and his friends were lucky as they survived and didn’t lose anyone they knew.

He says he can’t imagine the anguish of families who lost people.

Paul says: “It was hard enough for us so I can’t imagine what it was like for those in the thick of it or closer to it than we were or those who lost loved ones.

“It could so easily have been me or one of my friends among the 96 who died.”

Paul says he fully supports the Hillsborough families wanting truth and justice for closure.

And he says one of the reasons he became a councillor was his desire for transparency.

Paul explains: “My biggest issue with what happened at Hillsborough is the lies and cover ups and the fact that some people got away with it.

“The police did not deliberately set out to cause harm that day or want people to die.

“But certain senior police deliberately distorted the facts and lied to cover themselves.

“Some retired early or on full pay so they didn’t have to face questions.

“These people should be brought to justice whether they are still serving or not.

“They need to apologise for the lies and distress they caused.

“One of the things I hate most is corruption, cover-ups and seeing the more privileged or people in higher positions use their influence to get away with things.

“If people are willing to fight and stand up to them, at some point the truth will come out.

“I am still a Liverpool season ticket holder and the way the Hillsborough families have fought for the truth for so long makes me proud to be a Liverpool fan.”