How Hillsborough disaster motivated policeman to help victims of world's worst tragedies
He saw the horror of the Hillsborough disaster unfold as a young policeman '“ and used the experience to ensure victims in some of the world's worst tragedies were treated with the respect they deserve.
Former South Yorkshire Police officer Richard Venables became one of the country’s leading experts on dealing with disasters – assisting the response to the 7/7 bombings and travelling to Thailand to deal with the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004.
Richard, who lives in Rawmarsh, Rotherham, has now written a new autobiography called ‘A Life in Death’ about his extraordinary experiences in dealing with some of the darkest moments in modern British history.
The grandad, who is aged 58, said putting together a book about his experiences in dealing with disasters such as the Selby rail crash and the deaths of 21 cockle pickers at Morecambe Bay had provoked a ‘rollercoaster of emotions’.
Rotherham United fan Mr Venables, who was awarded the Queen’s Police Medal for distinguished police service in 2006, joined South Yorkshire Police in 1976.
He was 31 when the Hillsborough disaster unfolded in 1989, where he was on duty in charge of a group of officers patrolling Penistone Road before the FA Cup semi-final in which 96 Liverpool supporters died.
Richard said he only had a limited role in dealing with the disaster after being called into the ground with his men as it became clear supporters were being crushed on the Leppings Lane terraces.
He said he has not included details about Hillsborough in the book due to recent inquest findings and further criminal investigations taking place.
Richard added: “I will say that the events left me feeling stunned and shocked.
“I have carried guilt from that day and will do to my grave. Not guilt for the cause which I had no idea of at that time, but guilt for not being able to do more.
“When I joined SYP in 1976 I swore an allegiance to the Queen which included the protection of life and property. For the one and only time in my career I found myself wearing the Queen’s uniform but wasn’t able to fulfil that promise.”
Richard said after joining the force’s Fraud Squad in 1993, he was told he would also be given responsibility for disaster management, reacting to tragedies involving the deaths of multiple people.
He said: “It became a passion for me. I was driven by the events of that day at Hillsborough to do a good job.
“Bereaved relatives never seem to get a good deal. But they need to be the most important people. We owed it to those people at the very worst time of their lives to do our very best.”
His job involved the set-up, operation and management of temporary mortuaries following disasters.
Initially allocated responsibility for temporary mortuary management and training within his home force, he went on to become one of the leading authorities on the subject within the UK.
His job did not involved dealing directly with the families of people who had died, but Richard said he felt a strong responsibility to them as he carried out his work.
“Particularly in the early days, I got rather involved with the people I was dealing with,” he said.
“The people involved, although you knew their names, I didn’t know them. But then you would go home, watch the news and see a pen portrait of who they were and suddenly you are in their lives.
“I started to distance myself from the news. I found it really difficult to deal with so it is something I made a conscious effort to do.
“I am working for the families and there is no way I would like to impair my impartiality and professionalism.”
In 2002, Richard left South Yorkshire Police to work at Bramshill Police Staff College in Hampshire to train senior manager involved in identifying the victims of disasters.
He said 2004 became ‘my year of disaster’, starting with the Morecambe Bay cockle picking tragedy in February 2004, in which 21 Chinese workers drowned.
This was followed by a light aircraft crash in Hotham, Humberside the following month in which two pilots died and in November by the Ufton Nervet rail crash. That incident involved a busy train striking a car parked by a suicidal man on a level crossing, killing seven and injuring more than 100 people.
Among those who died were two children, aged nine and 14.
This was followed on Boxing Day 2004 by the Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed 230,000 in 14 countries, including 149 British citizens.
Richard initially helped in London in a temporary mortuary with the process of repatriating the bodies of British victims and was then sent to Thailand to assist with operations on the ground.
“It was a hell of an experience,” he said.
“The sheer volume of bodies was quite overwhelming, but we had to be professional.
“There were lots of children, lots of perfectly healthy people among the dead.”
He said he was affected when he saw a television interview with the family of one British woman whose body he had dealt with.
“These poor people had been left without their mum. It hit me straight away seeing the family.”
When the 7/7 bombings occurred in London in July 2005, Richard was on his way to a conference in Canada where he was a guest speaker.
He provided advice on how to deal with the disaster over the phone after previously helping draw up preparation plans on how to deal with such a terrorist attack.
He said it had been an odd experience not to be on the ground and lead from the front in dealing with the response, which he said was handled very professionally in his absence.
“I was reassured and learnt that I didn’t need to be there all the time,” he said.
Richard said his unusual job means he has had to rely on his family.
“My family are very understanding. My wife has been through most of it with me and has been very understanding and supportive.
“She will encourage me to talk about it but as soon as I have talked about it, I tend to be able to move on.
He added writing a book had been more difficult than he thought.
“Writing the book has been cathartic. But I totally underestimated the journey I would go on. I have sat many a time in tears just reliving the bad bits.
“But I was determined to share what a fascinating and extraordinary life I have been fortunate enough to lead.”
Richard said he feels he can look back on his career with pride.
“South Yorkshire Police were found wanting in all areas of Hillsborough. One of the areas we needed to look at was the recovery and identification of bodies.
“I got that very small but very important to look at. We didn’t just sit back and think we are poor at that. We were part of the team that developed those procedures for disaster victim identification that are now used across the UK and across the world.
“We were determined to improve things for victims and relatives.”
He said he was part of a Government group that spoke to bereaved relatives whose loved ones had died in disasters.
“By talking to those people who had walked that course, you can develop protocols that will make things better for people in the same situation in future.
“I always said to my team, whatever appears before you in the mortuary, you treat that person as if they are a patient in hospital. It is all about dignity.”
n ’A Life in Death’ by Richard Venables and Kris Hollington is available in paperback (£9.99) and ebook (£3.99) from amazon.co.uk.