A letter to the Korean People from a survivor of the Hillsborough Disaster

First of all, I wanted to send my thoughts, prayers and condolences to all those affected by the tragic events in Itaewon. Please know that there are people like me around the world thinking of you and with you now in your time of deep sorrow.

In preparing this piece I was asked ‘what would you want to tell the bereaved families, survivors, and the Korean people?Although it feels like there are no words adequate to express the pain you must be feeling right now, I am hoping the following thoughts based on my own experience of disaster and its aftermath may offer some small measure of comfort and support. And I hope that these reflections about what helped me and others may help you going forward.

I am a survivor of a fatal crush at the Hillsborough football stadium here in the UK in 1989. I was 25 at the time and what should have been a joyful day watching my team Liverpool win a Cup semi-final match turned out to be the worst imaginable time both for me, the friends I was there with, our families and the wider community. It was a national tragedy and has left a lasting impact on our collective conscience. Reading the events and reactions from Itaewon has many chilling similarities to the Hillsborough disaster – a build-up of very many people in a confined area (so very many young people) and a failure in crowd management, leading to a large loss of life and injury – physical and emotional. And it has clearly stirred the collective conscience.

Although we had no social media in those days our disaster was captured live on television - the tournament is a key national event in our annual sporting calendar – and so initial news and rumours spread fast. When I saw the early reports and emerging statistics from your disaster start to go up and up over the first few hours it took me straight back to Hillsborough.

First days and weeks

Just as for me then, I am sure that many of you reading this may still be in deep shock in these early days. It took me at least three days to realise that what had happened was really real. I later learned that that following such trauma our brain helps by protecting us and makes us numb so that we can get through this. It was and is such a raw and painful time. And it can feel like there is no escaping this horrible reality when the media and everyone is talking about it.  Messages of support, condolence, flowers and other tributes and rituals helped me a lot in those first few days – knowing that other people cared and being ‘held’ by this kept me going. I hope it does for you too.

And then, just when the initial shock was beginning to wear off, alternative accounts of reality started to surface and be shared in the news and other media. We were not responsible and yet the authorities and people who had not even been there were starting to blame us, create negative stories about us and shift responsibility for the disaster on to us. This was despite it being apparent and already being reported that our disaster was predictable, preventable and had even been predicted. This was another wave of shock for me - that I could no longer trust those in authority - not only to keep us safe, but to be open, honest and truthful about what had happened and their role in it.

As for you now, the role of the police and others responsible for safety management quickly came under the spotlight. I now understand how common it is for these early accounts of disaster to be the arena in which competing narratives and political agendas start to play out. In those days ordinary people like us – those who were there and knew the truth - did not have the power to evidence the truth. We had no social media and could not easily challenge, share our accounts and images and control emerging narratives. Just as with the Indonesian stadium tragedy a few weeks ago, those of you who were there do have that opportunity. You can more quickly collect, collate and share information and evidence that testifies to what happened, when and start to answer the question: ‘why’?

Blame and guilt

In the first week After Hillsborough those of us who were there already knew the truth. And so did those in authority. As always with disasters the first few days and weeks are when the blame-laying starts to shift and swirl. It was and is exhausting and I remember wanting to scream and shout out about what to us was the obvious truth and the beginning of what, in our case, became an orchestrated and deliberate cover up.

The worst part of this for me was the beginning of what I now know to be ‘survivor guilt’. When you have been surrounded by so many unrepeatable scenes of distress; when horror has unfolded all around, in front of and behind you; when the difference between living and dying was and is so random; when you feel like you should have been able to save others when you couldn’t even move, or were only just able to save yourself…. no wonder you feel guilty and you can’t stop thinking about it. If this is you, please know that although this feels so overwhelmingly painful, it is normal, and that these reactions and feelings usually diminish over time. And it wasn’t your fault. Not being in control of what was happening wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t then and it isn’t now.

Talking about it

Until you have yourself experienced and been in the middle of a crush like this you can’t know how inaccurate, inappropriate, hurtful and wrong terms like ‘mass panic’ and ‘stampede’ are and how misguided the loose reference to notions such as ‘crowd violence’ can be. They can imply those in a fatal crush have volition and control or that those caught up in it are irrational and selfish.  This is factually inaccurate and whether intended or not such language can turn the onus of responsibility and guilt on to the victims. This is why experts in crowd management dispute and challenge the use of these terms and why it’s ok to reprimand lazy journalists and uninformed commentators. If you have used these terms, please think again and please understand the further harm that uttering them can cause; please don’t.

What helped me in the early days and weeks after Hillsborough, and often still does today, was talking about what really happened and how it made me feel. But only when it felt safe, was not forced and was with people I trusted not to judge, but just to listen. As well as talking about it with friends who had been there, I instinctively sought out other survivors, strangers with whom I suddenly (and to this day) feel a special connection and often a strong unique bond with. They also helped get me through because they understood and understand now – they just ‘get it’ and, as our Hillsborough Survivors Support Alliance (HSA) motto says ‘Unity is Strength’. Peer support (by us, for us) certainly saved me and still today I have strong friendships and can give and get mutual support through HSA support group meetings and WhatsApp groups.

Talking was important in the early days after Hillsborough because everyone had their own unique experience to share, about who we were before, on the day and after. We all had our own understanding of the events and talking helped us make sense by building a shared picture of what had happened on the day. This was especially valuable when there was a lot of confusion, self-doubt and competing truths. I would say to other survivors, if feel ready and want to talk about it do, but if you don’t that’s ok too.

Some people I know found they weren’t ready to share their experiences and reactions for a long time. There were and are often different needs among and between the bereaved and survivors. Everyone is different and you should be guided by what feels right for you, although do know that always holding it in can be unhelpful and suppressing it can be risky. Over time I and other survivors found it helped talk about what happened and how it still affects us more than once, even again and again, but only when we felt ready, in control and in an environment that feels safe and supportive.

Making sense and meaning

I hope that in your case there will be time and opportunity for making sense and meaning from this tragedy. That can be the starting point for healing as well as formally marking and commemorating such tragic and extensive loss.

It took me a long time to recover from Hillsborough. I now know that that makes me normal; you should expect that anyone affected by your tragedy will need time too. People may say ‘time is a great healer’ or expect those still suffering to just ‘get over it’ in time, or become inpatient, judgemental and even plain nasty with the reality of their - your - understandably enduring grief and loss.

Hillsborough lives with me still and shaped the adult I became. In the early days and in the bleakest moments it was hard for me to imagine that I would, could and should survive all this. But I did. In fact, I went on to eventually work professionally in this field and was able to transform those experiences into paying it forward. I now specialise in disaster management and help support others affected by collective trauma. I have gone on to witness the formidable resilience and determination of bereaved people and survivors from other tragedies, including the awe-inspiring families that make up the 416 Foundation and are fighting for truth, justice and accountability in relation to their and other tragedies in Korea. My thoughts are with all those families now as well as the tragedy of will undoubtedly have been triggering for them too.

Kindness, Honesty, Integrity and Candour

I’ve learned that the most important attributes for anyone dealing with disaster, in whatever capacity, are kindness, honesty, integrity and candour. Therapists have helped me (some more than others), but it was mostly peers who gave me permissions to be kind to myself over the longer term, to understand survivor guilt and harness the energy needed to establish the truth of our disaster and campaign for accountability.

It was and remains a long journey but in time our fight for justice after Hillsborough has led to independent reports of the truth, and to us survivors finally being officially exonerated from all responsibility for the crush. We have even received full and frank apologies from institutions including the police, the government and media for blaming us in those early days and weeks. Our collective energies as bereaved people and survivors from this and other disasters has also led to successful campaigns around corporate accountability, and now even a parliamentary bill (the Hillsborough Law) calling for a legal duty of candour, truth and accountability for all public servants in our country.

But for now, please focus on the basics. Received and perceived social support, including the belief by those affected that they are cared for by others and that help is available if needed, makes a significant difference to levels of psychological wellbeing after disaster. So to the bereaved and survivors, including those of you who are both, and to the traumatised responder and helpers, please prioritise self-care and self-compassion at this time. If you are a caregiver, please know the best thing to have and to give those affected and those around you is fundamental basic care – love, comfort and support. That is the starting point.