We began the project with a critical view of the notion of 'panic' in emergencies, and this was supported by our findings, that the concept of 'mass panic' in disasters (where people behave selfishly in order to escape danger) is largely a myth. However, what I found interesting was that this did not stop survivors of disasters using the term 'panic' to describe their experiences, and that the vast majority of people I interviewed spontaneously mentioned the term before I had a chance to ask them myself. This got me thinking about how and why people who had survived disasters still used the term, when they would have good reason to reject the irrationalist and selfish implications that go along with its use.
I decided to focus on the four Hillsborough interviews for various reasons. Firstly, as a kid who was a Liverpool supporter at the time of the disaster, I can remember the tragedy happening, and so felt a degree of connection with the club and their fans. However, as someone who later developed an interest in studying crowd behaviour, I was always uneasy with the simplistic and flawed explanations of the tragedy that argued that the fans were in some way to blame because of their 'irrational' behaviour (and I am pleased that such views have now been comprehensively disproven by the release of the Hillsborough Independent Panel (HIP) report in Sept 2012). I thought that the controversies over Hillsborough and the ongoing search for justice by survivors and their families highlighted perfectly how the language often used to describe such disasters is not only flawed, but also constrains those affected by them. This is because Hillsborough survivors would have very good reason to reject the irrationalist implications of using terms such as 'panic' (and history has now vindicated their position that they were not in any way to blame for the tragedy), but they may still use the term to describe their experiences.
Therefore, we explored their use of 'panic' in more detail, and found some interesting complexity in their usage. First of all, the term was used to describe the understandable fear and distress that they felt in themselves and saw in others, but at the same time they rejected the idea that fans behaved selfishly and/or irrationally, and described numerous instances of fans co-operating where it was physically possible to do so. However, they also used the term to describe the behaviour of police officers on the day, in that because the police 'panicked', they were unable to effectively manage the crowd safely, which resulted in the fatal crush that claimed 96 lives. Finally, some survivors acknowledged how the term 'panic' itself constrained their attempts to talk about their experiences, and one even said during the interview;
'the only way I can describe it was panic'.
This lead us to conclude that the term 'panic' is so deeply embedded in popular discourse, that people may use it unwittingly, and that we need to come up with new ways of describing emergency behaviour that do not have such emotionally loaded undertones. Furthermore, this is not just a semantic exercise in wordplay, as there is a large body of evidence that argues that describing emergency behaviour as 'panic' has real and possible life-threatening consequences. For example, if those responsible for crowd mangement assume that crowds are a potential threat because they will 'panic' and/or 'stampede' at the first sign of danger, then this influences crowd management strategies towards a public order rather than public safety perspective, and the HIP report concluded that viewing the policing of football matches in the 1980s as potential public order problems was a major contributory factor to the tragedy. I don't have any illusions that academic articles on their own can change the world but I do hope that this article can contribute in however small a way to countering and overcoming the deep-seated (but fundamentally flawed) irrationalist views of crowds that contributed to the Hillsborough disaster and help make sure that such entirely preventable disasters never happen again.
DEDICATED TO THE MEMORY OF THE 96 AND THEIR FAMILIES
'Crucial evidence which was undermined at the original inquest, was true. An off-duty police officer has always maintained he tried to treat a dying boy after the time at which the coroner said no-one could have survived. His account cast doubt on medical evidence that supporters could not have survived beyond 15:15 on that day.'
Cocking, C & Drury J (2013) Talking About Hillsborough: ‘Panic’ as Discourse in Survivors’ accounts of the 1989 football stadium disaster. Journal of Community & Applied Social Psychology.