'There was so much panic – even the police were crying'
SATURDAY, April 15, 1989, is forever etched into the nation's consciousness as the day 96 fans went to a football match and came home in a coffin.
It is also the day that Exeter's Paul Beer became a man.
His premature rite of passage came when he was just 17 and had excitedly boarded the coach to travel to Sheffield to support Liverpool in the FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough.
The horror he witnessed on that fateful day, with people being crushed and dying around him, changed his life forever.
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Twenty-three years later Paul is now 40. Time heals a lot of wounds, but it was only last year that he finally returned to the ground to watch Exeter City take on Sheffield Wednesday.
It has taken so long for the victims to finally be vindicated – several reports, a flawed inquest, five prime ministers, five Sun editors, and six Chief Constables of South Yorkshire Police – yet the ripple of apologies we heard last week has only compounded the survivors' suffering.
Following the release of the report from the independent panel – summarised below – families can finally say the dead can finally rest in peace.
Paul, who lives in Old Tiverton Road, was among the crowd being crushed outside the turnstiles when the fateful decision was made to open up the exit gate. He survived as he made a decision to go off into a side pen to buy a programme.
He said: "For the fans to be cleared of any blame is obviously a good thing but the most shocking aspect is it has taken 23 years to happen.
"I hope this brings some closure for the families' sake. They can hopefully start to move on and get a bit of peace. But nothing is going to bring their loved ones back.
"This just confirmed everything that I, and anyone who was at Hillsborough, already knew.
"I understand why the families fought so hard. If I had died that day I am sure my family would have worked just as hard to clear my name. To see that 41 could have survived is a horrendous thing for the families to hear but the whole thing was so avoidable.
"The crush outside was so bad and there was a real lack of communication. All they had to do before they opened the exit gates was to shut off the two doors leading to the central pen and filter people off to the side."
Reflecting on his own experiences that day Paul said: "When we went in everyone was heading to the centre as that is where all the signing and atmosphere was coming from. I went off to the side to buy a programme and then watched the horrendous events unfold from there.
"I was standing virtually on my own while dozens of people right next to me died. All I could hear was people screaming, none of them could move.
"One or two people were being pulled up over the gate — most of them were dead.
"I saw one 10-year-old lad being carried on a makeshift stretcher and he was put down in front of me. His dad was desperately trying to resuscitate him and was screaming for him to be alive. But someone told him to stop because he was dead.
"There was so much panic around me — even the police were crying — I just watched as if it wasn't really happening."
Paul said he did suffer nightmares and flashbacks for a while and when it appears in the news it brings it all up again.
His mother Shirley Beer, who also lives in Old Tiverton Road, knows how close she came to being a bereaved relative.
Now 70, she said: "I am very pleased the fans have finally been vindicated but am disgusted it has taken so long. I am very sorry for the rest of the families for all they have been through.
"For me the most shocking thing in the report is just how many could have been saved beyond the cut-off point of 3.15pm. I can only imagine how awful this must be for the families to hear. I am so sorry for the lives that could have been saved
"The fans were treated appallingly. The families can now hold their heads up high knowing their children and loved ones were not to blame.
"Those responsible should now be brought to account."
On the day of Hillsborough Ms Beer said she was watching events unfold on television with no idea whether her son had survived. She said: "I have terrible memories of that day. I thought I saw my son on one of those boards that were carried across the pitch. It was dreadful watching it all unfold.
"But the people of Sheffield were really wonderful. They opened up their houses so all the people could phone home. I did not hear from Paul until later in the evening for what seemed like hours. He said strangers were coming up to them giving them hugs.
"Afterwards I suffered badly from guilt and survivor's syndrome. He was so fortunate he survived but I always thought about the likes of the Hicks family, who lost two daughters, and felt awful for them.
"He went up a boy and came back a man. He saw some horrific things and had nightmares for years about being trapped.
"This brings it all back. Paul only went up to Sheffield again for the first time last year when Exeter City played there. It was an emotional trip for him but I know he was pleased he went."
Paul, who works at Queen's Road Auctioneers in St Thomas, was among the group of fans at the Leppings Lane turnstile who were being squashed up against the fence outside. The fateful decision was then made to open up those gates and everyone flooded in. No one took or checked his ticket.
Ms Beer said: "He went in the side of the stand and stopped to get a programme. He then took one look at the middle of the terrace and thought it looked very crowded in there.
"No one checked their tickets and there was no one to tell them not to go in the middle. But his decision not to probably saved his life."