For nearly a quarter of a century they have been simply ‘the 96’. They have been a number.
But over the last couple of weeks that has changed. From a nondescript office building turned courtroom in Warrington have emerged personal histories, pen portraits and heartfelt testimony that have turned ‘the 96’ into individuals, into real people.
We knew those killed at Hillsborough in April 1989 were dads and sons and sisters and daughters, but we didn’t really know about their lives, their stories, who they were, what they did and what they meant to others.
But now we do. The new inquests, ordered after the accidental death verdicts were quashed, are seeing to that.
We heard of the brilliant computer scientist designing and selling computer programmes from the age of 14. We heard of the husband who “loved being a Dad” and who was playing with his daughters before heading off to Hillsborough and who had promised to come home and put his girls to bed.
We heard of the family who have “no inkling of what life without Hillsborough looks like”. How the disaster “ripped out the pages” from one 23 year old’s life. How his life had been “like a book with a title, an introduction, a description of the characters – then someone ripped out the rest.”
We heard of the brother who had never been in trouble. And the only time police were involved in his life was when they “brought his clothes home in a plastic bag“ after his death.
Every day of the inquests have produced different stories of different lives told with emotion and love and there are so many more to come.
And now it is the anniversary. Can it really be 25 years? I remember the day like it was yesterday.
In the afternoon I was at ITN’s London studios expecting to present the day’s sport. The main event of course was that FA Cup Semi Final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest and Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough ground.
Slowly the news came through of the disaster unfolding. It was a pitch invasion said the initial report. It was crowd trouble, said another. Then came news of the crush and the injuries. The players had temporarily left the pitch. And then came the first word of the deaths.
People dying at a football match on a spring weekend afternoon. It was difficult to comprehend but it was happening.
Within a few hours I was at Hillsborough witnessing the grim chaos and confusion amid the aftermath of this country's worst sporting disaster. I was directed by one police officer to a gymnasium that became a makeshift morgue where relatives had come to identify their loved ones. It was no place to be with a camera. This was gut-wrenching grief and anger and we left.
The following day with the country deep in shock, the flowers were arriving, and so was the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. She walked with the Home Secretary, Douglas Hurd and senior police officers on to the terracing where the deaths occurred.
They saw the damaged fencing, the grotesquely bent crushed barriers and I remember thinking it seemed barely possible that so many could have died there.
The new inquests were ordered after accidental death verdicts were quashed by the High Court.
As they always do on April 15th, the people of Liverpool remember.
But they can also look to the future with just a little bit more hope that one day there will be answers for the 96.