Margaret Aspinall: 'I was denied final cuddle with dead son'

Updated 1430 GMT (2230 HKT) April 26, 2016

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Story highlights

  • Inquest finds football fans unlawfully killed
  • 96 died at Hillsborough Stadium in 1989

Margaret Aspinall lost her son James in the 1989 Hillsborough soccer stadium disaster. She is the chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group. The following is from her interview with Don Riddell for CNN's documentary "Hillsborough: They'll Never Walk Alone"

(CNN)I'm so grateful that God chose me to be James' mom. He was my first born, the eldest of five, and he was a beautiful child. He was a wonderful son; very kind, very generous, very helpful to his brothers and sisters. Anybody would have been proud to be James' mum.

He came home one day with a gift for his Dad, even though it wasn't his birthday. It was a guitar. His Dad asked, "James, what have you spent your money on me for?" James replied, "Dad, you've been good to me for 18 years and I bought you this. When you play it, always remember me."
He'd been working part-time and paying for it weekly, that's the kind of lad he was. Then he turned to me and said, "Don't worry, Mum. You're not forgotten. I pay for something every week for you that you're going to get for your birthday."
I never knew what that was; my birthday wasn't until September.
He'd only been to see Liverpool play five or six times. Truthfully, he was more of a Chris de Burgh fan. He even told me that day if Chris de Burgh was playing in concert then he wouldn't have gone to the game. I can remember him being up that morning and he was excited, he was going to his first away game.
I'd bought him a gold chain for his 18th birthday the previous month and he used to take it off every night, he didn't want it to get broken. Before he left, he asked if I'd put in on his neck and I said, "You're going to have to learn to do this yourself, I won't always be around!" He checked that I'd done it properly, he said there was going to be loads of people at the game and he didn't want it falling off.
I told him it didn't matter who was going to win the game and he replied, "It's going to be three or four-nil today Mum, but I'll be home late. I won't go to Mass tonight, I'll go tomorrow."
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I watched him walk up the road and a strange feeling came into my head, I remember thinking: "That's my beautiful son." I remember thinking that I wanted everyone to know I was his mum.
I shut the door and got on with some housework, I got the other children washed and dressed. My nine-year-old daughter came home from a week-long trip and she was excited to see James, I was going to let her stay up late to see him after the game.
Hillsborough stadium tragedy

• Inquest finds football fans unlawfully killed

• 96 died at Hillsborough Stadium in 1989

• Jury rules police at fault for deadly crush

• Fan behavior did not cause or contribute to tragedy

• UK prosecution will now consider criminal charges

• Deaths at Liverpool-Nottingham Forest FA Cup tie

• Victims' families campaigned for inquiry

Read more

At three o'clock I was making sandwiches and I heard my sister-in-law shouting from the other room. She said: "Margaret, there's trouble at Hillsborough." I thought, "Why's she telling me that? Where's Hillsborough?" She said, "Isn't that where James is?" I said no, James has gone to Sheffield. She said, "Margaret, that's Hillsborough. There's trouble there." When I looked at the screen, I could see all these people trying to climb over and I saw somebody getting laid out on the pitch in front of the goal.
I honestly believed I saw James; whether I did or I didn't, I don't know. But at that time I thought I saw James getting laid on the pitch. And I started screaming then at the television. I said, "Nobody's helping them." And my sister-in-law just said, "Margaret, you're getting paranoid. Just turn the television off."
My husband Jimmy was also at the game. He drove by car, separately to James.
Then I heard on the radio that seven people had died. And the death toll was rising. We tried calling the emergency numbers, but we couldn't get through, so we phoned the coach company that James had traveled with and eventually -- at about eight o'clock -- we got through to them. They said everybody had been accounted for.
My husband had been looking all over Sheffield for him, but because James was now apparently safe, he came home. He drove all the way back from Sheffield, about two hours, and as soon as he gets in the door I shove him back into the car so we can go to meet James off the bus.
We went down to Lime Street, waited for every coach to come in and the very last one, I said to the driver, "Is this the last coach?" "Yes, we've all arrived back now. There's no more."
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Chairwoman of the Hillsborough Families Support Group, Margaret Aspinall, whose son James died in the 1989 Hillsborough disaster.

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It's now midnight, you can imagine the stress we're all under. I said to Jimmy, "You've got to go back to Sheffield. He'll be walking around in a daze." We agreed that he'd phone every hour with news. He called at one, two and three o'clock, at which point I said to him: "Please don't come back here without my son, stay out there and find him." He said he'd been around all the hospitals and now he was off to a gymnasium to see if he was there.
He didn't call at four, or five. I was hysterical at this point, absolutely hysterical. By six o'clock, I just couldn't stand it any more so I went out for some fresh air.
Then I saw my husband being driven down the road, with his head in his hands.
I started screaming to Jim, "Please, please don't catch me up," and I started knocking on people's doors. I was terrified that if he caught me up then who was going to tell me my son had died. I turned around and saw my husband on his knees, sobbing. He was completely broken, he said: "What can I say? You don't know what I've gone through up there."
I don't know how I got in the house but I do remember I was screaming. And as I was screaming I just heard my poor little children upstairs on the landing, sobbing, "What's the matter with mum?"
"I have to tell them their brother's dead. How can I tell them their brother's dead?"
Floral tributes are laid in memory of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster at Anfield Stadium, Liverpool.
So I went back to Sheffield with my husband; can you imagine my poor husband, going from Liverpool to Sheffield and back three times? Before I went out the door I said, "Get James' coat. He'll be cold and he doesn't like the cold."
I don't remember the journey at all -- but when we got to Sheffield, we got taken to this big room and I saw all these people crying and screaming. I just turned around and said to Jim, "Why are they all crying for my James? They don't know my James." These poor people were crying for their loved ones.
Eventually this person just said to me, "Are you ready, Mrs. Aspinall?" I thought, "Ready for what?" He took us to a dark room with a light, curtains and a big glass screen. He just opened the curtains ... and there's my son on a trolley. I just really wanted to go in and give him a cuddle.
But they wouldn't let me. I said, "Please, please, just let me. I love him so much just let me cuddle him. I've got to let him know his mom's here. Will you put his coat on so I can take him home?"
And this voice said to me, "Sorry Mrs. Aspinall, he doesn't belong to you anymore. He belongs to the coroner." I think that's when I lost it. I said, "No, he's mine." I remember just screaming then. "From when they slashed the umbilical cord, James and I were never separated. You've destroyed it."
I don't forget those words: "He doesn't belong to you anymore." I thought those were the most awful things to say to a mom. That's what sticks in my mind, that they didn't give me a chance to cuddle my son. I don't forgive that.
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If I'm being truthful, I blamed God what for had happened. We never blame God when something wonderful happens do we? It's always our achievement. But when something bad happens you've got to blame someone and I think the first person to get the blame is God.
But within days I knew who was at fault. The minute I heard the news about drunken, ticketless fans, I thought, "Lies. This is absolute lies (sic)." I knew then who was at fault. Somebody wasn't doing their job and that's how I knew there was going to be a coverup.
When the West Midlands Police came to our house, the first question to my husband was, "Did you have a drink?" We knew they were trying to build a picture. Jimmy knew it right away. James didn't have any drink in him. My husband doesn't hardly drink at all, but he still got questioned as if he was a drunkard. That's how all the families were treated and they made those families feel guilty if their loved one had a drink before they went to the game.
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They kept asking me if I had James' ticket stub. Right away, my brain kicked into gear. I said, "What do you want the stub of James' ticket for?" "We just want to see it to look at something, to see maybe what time he actually got there." "You don't need the stub of his ticket for that," I said. "I'm not giving it to you."
They were going to try to say James was ticketless. They were going to take it and we wouldn't have got it back.
We knew from the very beginning that they were going to try to blame the fans and they did. They did a good job of it, actually. But they didn't count on the families and the fans and the survivors fighting for so long to get to the real truth.
The truth has always meant a great deal to me. My mother always used to say to me, "Give me a thief before a liar." I used to think, "Is my mum nuts? You'd rather have a thief before a liar?"
When Hillsborough happened, I understood what she meant. That's why you can get an honest thief. You know they're a thief. You don't know a liar when they enter your door. I believe that lie and the death of my son -- my mother's grandson -- helped to kill her.
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Nothing much surprises me about Hillsborough anymore, but what shocked me the most was learning that they took the blood alcohol levels of all the deceased and searched the criminal records to see if there were any matches. That's how low they were sinking -- to take the criminal record of the victims when they were lying on a concrete floor. I thought, "How far does this coverup go? How far and how deep?" Because I don't think there's a hole deep enough that will get to the very bottom.
Since 1989, it's been hard for all of the families. It's been a hell of a long journey, one hell of a fight. We've had inquiries, judicial reviews, private prosecutions, you name it. We've tried every legal avenue in this country to get to the truth and it's not been easy. At times, you want to give up. I've never missed a family meeting, I've never missed a vigil.
But what I have missed is my other children growing up. When Hillsborough happened, they were very young. It's as if I just turned around and now they're grown up with children of their own.
The other day my little granddaughter phoned up the Hillsborough Family Support Group office to say, "You're always in that office and we never see you. You're always doing something for the other families, why can't you come home and do it for us now?" That made me realize, I'm doing to them exactly what I did to my own children. I wasn't there for them.
There is no such thing as justice for a life. If you'd have asked me 25 years ago, I'd have personally gone down and hung, drawn and quartered a lot of people who were involved at that time. I've gone beyond that, thank God.
But I do believe in honesty, integrity, truthfulness and accountability. People should be held to account and named and shamed for what they did that day and also what they haven't done since.
The right verdict is my gift to James when I do meet him. That's what I want to take to him. That's all I can do for him. And that's what I've been fighting for.
I'm so grateful that I was chosen to have that wonderful boy. It just wasn't long enough.