Neil Fitzmaurice: “People were suffocating”

Neil Fitzmaurice as Eddie Doig in MobileWriter and actor Neil Fitzmaurice stars in a new three-part drama, ‘Mobile’, starting on ITV1 in the UK on Monday, playing the part of a character who he has one major thing in common with. The character he plays is called Eddie Doig, a survivor of the Hillsborough disaster still suffering from the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. In real life Neil himself was a survivor of the terrible events in the Leppings Lane end that saw ninety-six Liverpool supporters die. He still suffers to this day as a result.

Neil is well-known for his work with Peter Kay – they co-wrote ‘Phoenix Nights’ in which Neil played the part of Ray Von. He also co-wrote and starred in some of the ‘That Peter Kay Thing’ series.

Neil wasn’t chosen for the part of Eddie because of his own experiences of Hillsborough, because it was something he’d not spoken about in public before. However, as he told the Daily Mirror, as soon as he saw the script he felt he was the right person to play the part: “When I was cast for the role of Eddie nobody knew I'd been at Hillsborough nor suffered from post-traumatic stress because I've never told anybody before, but when I saw the script it was as though the part had been written for me. The fact that Eddie had been a victim of Hillsborough leapt out at me and I knew, because of my personal experience, that I could do the role justice.”

It’s the 18th anniversary of Hillsborough next month, yet the years haven’t allowed the memories of April 15th 1989 to fade for Neil, or for other survivors of the day. His story is extremely moving. Ninety-six people died, but thousands of supporters had to witness those events first-hand and those kinds of memories don’t go away. Now 37, Neil talks about the harrowing scenes as though they happened yesterday.

He recalled that he’d travelled over to Sheffield in a mini-van with
some mates, and that two of his three brothers were at the game too. 
He’d not been in the ground all that long when the police made a
decision which would lead to 96 people being killed, crushed and
suffocated against the crash barriers and fences in the ground

He tells a tale that is very, very difficult to read: “I was about
midway up the terrace when suddenly this huge wave hit me, a human
wave, carrying us forward several feet and then surging back. We were
compacted like sardines, so squashed that the glass popped out of my

“Everybody began to panic. The crush was so intense people were suffocating, dying next to me.

“Dead bodies popped up like corks from a bottle each time the crowd
surged forward trying to get off the terrace and on to the pitch. It
became a battle for survival.

“I saw people clambering over others as if they were body surfing,
desperately trying to get over the chicken wire fence that was penning
us in, but the police were forcing them back. They thought it was crowd
trouble. They didn't realise what was going on.

“People were biting each other, to let the person next to them know
they were alive. You could tell some people had given up the fight, you
could see it in their eyes. They simply couldn't breathe and died where
they stood.”

Neil said he and a friend helped each other to clamber over the bodies
towards the fences, and to also drag with them the man who was next to
them. He continues: “We managed to get to a barrier and climbed over.
It was utter confusion, mass hysteria. I shouted at the man to climb
over the barrier but when I let go of his hand he fell to the floor. He
was already dead.”

The trauma went on: “I got on to the pitch and tried to help others
pull down the chicken wire fence, but the police stopped us.”

And Neil recalls one moment that he describes as “a miracle”: “I did a
deal with God that day, just to stay alive. I was frightened for my
brothers but, as I stood on the pitch, despite the screaming and the
scrambling and the vast crowds, I looked up – directly into the eyes of
one of my brothers. It was like a miracle. They were both safe in
another part of the stadium. I fell to the floor with relief.”

He remembers a moment where the enormity of everything seemed to be
blocked out: “I lay there, staring up at the sky. It was a beautiful,
sunny day and suddenly I couldn't hear anything, as if the deafening
screams and the carnage wasn't happening. It was as if my mind had put
up a barrier to shut out the sheer horror of what was happening.”

Police not only opened the gate that resulted in the horrific crush,
but decisions were also made to prevent ambulances from getting into
the ground to help treat those that were hanging onto life. The fans
had to do the work of emergency workers themselves: “I remember helping
to carry dead bodies off the pitch to a temporary morgue. You don't
realise how long a football pitch is until you have run up and down it
several times. We ripped down the advertising hoardings to use as
makeshift stretchers, wrapping the dead in our coats.”

Police officers were ordered by their superiors to treat Liverpool
supporters that day in a way that should have seen punishment handed
out, but to this day that’s never happened. Neil goes on: “There were
many heroes that day. I am immensely proud of the way the Liverpool
fans behaved.  I remember a paramedic crying in my arms at the sheer
hopelessness of the situation. Everybody was dazed, screaming about
what had happened to them but the horror just kept on unfolding. We
were forced by the police to queue to get out of the stadium.”

Once they had got outside another instinct came to the fore: “My first
thought was to ring home, the same as everybody else, but there were
vast queues at the phone boxes. There were no mobile phones in those
days. Myself and two friends knocked on the door of a pensioner. We
could see she was scared. We must have looked a sight and we were
rambling but, God love her, she let us in to call home.”

Anfield in 1989 after Hillsborough
Back home in Liverpool the after-effects of the disaster had to be
dealt with: “They set up drop in centres immediately after the tragedy,
and I saw a social worker who recommended that I should re-visit
Hillsborough as a way of coping with the shock. I went back a week

When he returned to the ground, the scene of the awful events, he was
greeted with a site that hit him hard: “The pen in which we'd stood was
still littered with evidence of the tragedy – watches, shoes, clothing,
full cigarette packets, signs of lives which had been taken. I suffered
a great deal of survivor guilt – many of us did.”

With so many people witness to the events at least there was the
ability for survivors to set up their own impromptu support groups.
They did this by spending time with each other and helping each other
to talk about what had happened: “I set up intense friendships with
people I'd never met before and spent months sitting all day in the pub
with them, drinking and talking about what had happened to us. It was
our way of coping with the trauma.”

The post-traumatic stress disorder would soon kick in: “I couldn't bear
to wear anything tight-fitting, especially not a belt, because I always
had in my mind the vision of suffocating. All my clothes were loose and
baggy. I had panic attacks in crowds; I couldn't stand people around

Night-times were bad too: “I couldn't go to sleep on my own. I had to
have the TV and light on in the bedroom at night, because I couldn't
bear silence. In the silence, the memories became vivid.”

It took over his life: “I suffered from survivor's guilt. I didn't know
why I'd lived and why so many others died. I hated going into pubs and
hearing people laughing and having a good time. I wanted to scream at
them to stop and remember the dead. I was eventually invited to Alder
Hey hospital to be assessed. That's when I was diagnosed with chronic
post-traumatic stress disorder.”

To this day the symptoms persist: “I am always hyper-alert in crowds. I
try to avoid them if I can. I still have triggers – I can't stand to
watch any scenes of violence on TV and I get anxious about silly
things.” Time has given him a way of coping to some extent with the
symptoms: “I've learned to create a cut-off point when I get stressed
where I tell myself, 'It doesn't matter. I was a minute away from
death, but I'm alive.' That usually does the trick.”

Celtic Justice Banner
Eighteen years ago post-traumatic stress disorder was practically
unheard of and Neil was never given the treatment he should have got,
either through medication or through counselling. Like most, he was
left to deal with it himself. A match in Glasgow against Celtic was one
of the first steps. The game had been arranged to help raise money and
as a memorial to the victims, a gesture that’s never been forgotten by
Liverpool fans. The Celtic fans have never forgotten either and
recently a group of them created an excellent banner reminding everyone
about the fight for Justice for the 96.

Neil said that the journey up to Glasgow and the attitude of the people
there was a massive help towards some kind of recovery for him: “I went
in a car emblazoned with Liverpool insignia. People at bus stops were
clapping us as we passed. Shopkeepers wouldn't let us pay for goods. I
found the sheer kindness of strangers healing. The love we were given
by the people of Glasgow comforted me more than anything else could

It’s taken Neil 18 years to get to a point where he can talk about it
so openly, but he feels it’s come at an appropriate time: “The
anniversary of Hillsborough is next month and it seems fitting that I
should share my experience so the tragedy is not forgotten. Even to
this day, many of the victims can't speak about what happened to them.
It has taken me until now to come to terms with it.”

You can watch ‘Mobile’ in the UK on Monday at 9pm on ITV1.

You can show this article (or the original article in the Mirror) to anyone who doubts that the fight for justice for the 96 must go on.