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Liverpool keeper recalls 'mayhem' of 1989 stadium tragedy

09/19/2012 02:07 EDT | Updated 11/19/2012 05:12 EST
Bruce Grobbelaar was on the field in Sheffield that day — first listening to the fans behind his goal asking him for help, then helping tear down advertising billboards surrounding the field for use as makeshift stretchers.

Now, 23 years later, Grobbelaar says he is buoyed by the findings of an independent panel into the Hillsborough stadium disaster.

Last week, British Prime Minster David Cameron said he is "profoundly sorry" for the "double injustice" of the disaster that killed 96 soccer fans in 1989.

Cameron said the report showed police had failed to do enough, and then tried to blame the Liverpool fans.

“We know that the authorities tried to hide the blame,” Grobbelaar told CBC News this week.

The longtime Liverpool goalkeeper — he played for the iconic English soccer club from 1981 through 1994 — now lives in western Newfoundland.

FA Cup semi-final

On April 15, 1989, he was tending goal in Liverpool’s FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest, held at a neutral location — Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield.

The Liverpool fans were in the Leppings Lane end of the field, behind the goal Grobbelaar would defend in the first half.

When he came out for his pre-game warm-up, Grobbelaar noticed that the middle section of the standing-room section was getting more and more full.

“It was nearly bursting at the seams at that time,” he recalled.

He found it strange that the corner areas were relatively empty.

After the game kicked off, Nottingham Forest pressed, and a shot went over his goal. Grobbelaar went to go get it.

“When I went back to retrieve the ball, people were asking me to help them,” he recalled.

“And I was thinking, ‘It’s strange, I’m on the field, how can I help them?’”

The ball went out a second time, just two or three minutes into the match. The fans started yelling at him: “Bruce, they’re killing us.”

Grobbelaar says he shouted to the security guard on the gate to open it.

People began clambering over the middle sections to get into the outer sections. Others were hoisted out of danger into the seated section of the stands above.

Soon after — just six minutes into the game — “mayhem broke loose,” Grobbelaar says.

Before the coaching staff grabbed the players and hustled them off the field, Grobbelaar and teammate Steve Nichol tried to break down advertising boards behind the goal to turn them into stretchers to carry away the victims.

Grobbelaar says he saw people getting asphyxiated in the crush.

“I’ve been through war situations, where I’ve seen dead people, being shot,” he said.

“But seeing a person suffocated — you don’t want to see that, ever, in your life.”

Review findings

The recently-released review confirmed that failures by police led directly led to the disaster, and that some injured fans were denied medical treatment.

Police officers herded around 2,000 Liverpool fans into caged-in enclosures that were already full.

No individual or organization has ever faced charges in connection with the disaster.

Grobbelaar says he hopes those responsible will be identified.

“That will come out in the wash,” he said. “I know that, now that the blame has been shifted — and quite rightly so — and the blame taken away from the Liverpool fans.”

Grobbelaar says he would testify if asked in any future court proceedings.

“What happened was quite wrong, and they should be prosecuted,” he said.

Grobbelaar remains a memorable figure in Liverpool, playing there for more than a decade during an era of great success for the team.

The club’s website describes him as “the original eccentric genius between the sticks ... best remembered for the wobbly-legged penalty heroics which brought Liverpool the 1984 European Cup.”

He was born in South Africa, but represented Zimbabwe in international play.

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