Hillsborough disaster: A loss beyond language

    Story highlights

    • 96 football fans died on April 15, 1989
    • Hillsborough is UK's deadliest sport tragedy
    • 2016 inquest says police were at fault
    • CNN's Don Riddell met bereaved parents

    (CNN)Grief isn't something you can ever truly prepare for, certainly not ahead of an unexpected disaster.

    In the wake of a tragedy, as one heartbeat is silenced in an instant, the lives of many others are drastically changed. Forever.
    The languages we speak recognize that bereavement does occur. Loss is never welcome, but our parents die and so do our partners; we can become orphans, widows and widowers.
      But when our children are buried before us? Well, there is no such word, in any language. Such a reality is too awful to contemplate; there isn't even a name for it.
      On April 15, 1989, that fate befell hundreds of football fans and their families.
      Names and ages of victims are inscribed on the Hillsborough memorial at Liverpool FC's Anfield Stadium.
      The worst thing that is supposed to happen at a football match is perhaps that your team is handed a defeat.
      Maybe they'll be out of a cup, or worse-off in the league. Your journey home will be spent analyzing tactical naivety, a misplaced pass or a goalkeeper's gaffe.
      What's not supposed to happen is that your son and daughter arrive home a week later in a coffin.
      But for dozens of families on that beautiful spring day 27 years ago, that's exactly what happened. The Hillsborough tragedy was an arresting moment for British society and for those directly involved, the nightmare was far worse than you could possibly imagine.
      It was bad enough that they were crushed to death, the life squeezed out of them just a few feet behind the Liverpool team they adored.
      "96 reasons for justice" -- A lapel pin commemorates the lives lost, while calling for an inquiry.
      What's worse was that nearly half of the 96 victims could have been saved, if only they'd received prompt medical attention.
      But that's only the half of it. In an era before cell phones and the internet, it was hours before their friends and relatives knew they had been killed, a torturous wait cruelly punctuated with flashes of hope before the dawning of devastating reality.
      And at the moment of identification, it became an interrogation. These fans were being held responsible for their own deaths. It was a monumental lie, and one that was peddled for well over two decades.
      It was a lie perpetuated by the very organization that was supposed to protect and to serve, the police. Instead, that organization caused extreme harm and immense disservice to the notion of truth and the rule of the law.
      I was 16 years old when Hillsborough happened, around the same age as many of the innocent victims. I initially followed the drama on the radio before tuning into the live television coverage on the BBC's Grandstand program.
      I can still remember the vivid images of fans carrying their stricken friends across the field on advertising boards. I can still recall a commentator recounting how he'd let a distraught young fan use his broadcast equipment to telephone his Mum.
      We didn't learn many of the more heinous details until later, but even so I don't think the full wretched, emotional gravity of the disaster hit me until later in life, when I was a parent myself. Nothing worries or terrifies me more than the thought of something happening to my two young beautiful boys.
      A match ticket belonging to one of the Hicks girls. Their father Trevor called it "a death pass."
      I spent many hours with three of Hillsborough's bereaved parents, Margaret Aspinall and Trevor and Jenni Hicks. All generously gave me their time for CNN's documentary feature "They'll Never Walk Alone," and they described in heartbreaking detail their children and what they hoped to achieve with their lives.
      Most haunting though, was their visceral accounts of that day, April 15. And let me tell you that the passage of time has done nothing to dull their memories; in fact -- at times -- I thought they were going to be physically sick as they revisited that fateful Saturday afternoon in 1989.
      They could remember everything -- the sights, the sounds, the smells, and the emotions. Jenni Hicks, who lost her teenage daughters Sarah and Vicki, recounted sitting next to a man in the police station as both waited for news. "He looks how I feel," she recalled. "He looked very frightened."
      Jenni and Trevor had asked if they could take their deceased daughters home that night. They were denied. Trevor says his wife spent most of the car journey turning around to look for the girls in the back, where they would have been sitting on countless other family trips to see Liverpool play.
      Trevor and Jenni Hicks with their daughters Vicki (far left) and Sarah.
      The Hicks family had been in separate parts of the stadium as the disaster unfolded; Trevor found his girls lying almost side by side on the field.
      His efforts to save them were heartbreaking and traumatic. He had to suck vomit out of their mouths to clear their airways, and he was forced to leave Sarah on the field as he rode in an ambulance with Vicki. Can you imagine having to make such a hideous choice?
      Margaret's perspective was different; she was 80 miles away at home in Liverpool. I don't think I'll ever forget her account of the moment she learned that James, her eldest son, had died.
      It was 6 a.m. on Sunday morning -- an agonizing 15 hours after the disaster. She was crying in the street, her other four children weeping at the top of the stairs.
      The 2015-16 Liverpool shirt commemorates the 96 lives lost with this stitching below the collar.
      She drove to Sheffield clutching James' coat, because she knew he'd be cold and he'd be grateful. And just when things couldn't get any more dire, she was told that she couldn't give her son one last cuddle: "He doesn't belong to you anymore, he belongs to the coroner."
      Margaret is one of the bravest people I have ever met. Her pain and distress almost 30 years later is still so raw -- hearing of it first hand was incredibly moving.
      James had lived a good and honest life, but it was brutally cut short and the impact of his loss remains profound for his parents, his siblings and the children who would have been his nieces and nephews.
      Margaret Aspinall, chairwoman of the Hillsborough Families Support Group, lost son James.
      Now multiply that by 96, add in the suffering of the hundreds of people who were injured and the thousands who survived. And remember that it's been going on for 27 years.
      There are many reasons for telling the Hillsborough story. Of course, the disaster should never have happened in the first place, but the way the families were treated for more than 20 years by the police, the judiciary, the media -- the establishment -- has been despicable.
      The families of the victims have been dignified and determined in trying to uncover the truth and although they aren't looking for any credit, they deserve an enormous amount of it.
      I hope, I pray, that I never find myself in anything like the circumstances that these poor people have had to endure.
      Without question, telling their story has been the biggest challenge of my professional life, but I am forever grateful that I was able to spend time with Margaret, Jenni and Trevor. They are very special people and they should be an inspiration to all of us.
      The British High Court quashed the original verdict of "accidental death" on December 19, 2012.