Hillsborough: 27-year search to retrace victim's final steps in stadium death

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    Story highlights

    • Louis Brookes has spent the last 27 years trying to retrace her brother's final steps
    • Andrew Brookes was one of the 96 victims at the Hillsborough stadium disaster

    (CNN)Louise Brookes is one of those people you could talk to for hours; she's warm, engaging and witty. By her own admission she's also a bit of a softy, she cries easily. In fact her older brother Andrew used to call her "the tap" -- he'd never seen anyone able to turn on the waterworks quite so easily.

    Andrew died 27 years ago, one of the 96 Liverpool fans crushed to death in the Hillsborough Stadium Disaster; the life squeezed out of him right behind Bruce Grobbelaar's goal.
      But Louise says she's never cried for Andrew -- not once. She feels that she's been assigned a job and crucial to the completion of her task was "complete emotional detachment."
      Andrew and Louise were complete opposites, while she was feisty and outgoing, he was shy and easily embarrassed, he'd do anything to stay out of the limelight.
      He loved football though and in particular the Liverpool team. He was a look-a-like for Liverpool's then goalie Bruce Grobbelaar, with a receding hairline and bushy moustache, features that would later define him from beyond the grave.
      Louise Brookes holds a white feather she found in the Warrington courtroom where the Hillsborough inquest was held. White feathers held an important symbolism for her.
      "I adored my brother," Louise told me recently, "I'd have walked to the moon and back for him."
      Since that spring day when he perished in the Sheffield sunshine, her mission has been almost as epic as a cosmic voyage.
      In the aftermath of Hillsborough, hundreds of bereaved friends and relatives were reeling.
      As if the sudden loss and the destruction of dozens of family units wasn't enough to cope with, the victims became the subject of a smear campaign -- blamed for their own demise and the deaths of their friends.
      The police and the media -- Britain's establishment -- were controlling the narrative that late, drunk and ticketless fans had caused the disaster. We now know that none of it was true.

      Jigsaw puzzle

      Like many of the relatives, Louise became her own private investigator, determined to plot her brother's final movements to establish exactly how, where and why he died.
      "I started off with a jigsaw frame," she recalled, "but I didn't have any of the pieces."
      Louise and Andrew Brookes in happier times.
      It was a painstaking process and fraught with difficulty.
      Hours and hours, over many years, were spent reviewing videotapes of the disaster frame-by-frame, scanning harrowing photographs and thousands of anguished faces with a magnifying glass.
      At first, Louise found it impossible.
      In 1996, seven years after Andrew's death, South Yorkshire Police mailed her a picture of the crush in pen three, where Andrew was believed to have been killed. But despite her most determined efforts, she couldn't find him.
      Her eye was drawn, however, to a man with a distinctive haircut; she nicknamed him "Mullet Man" but there was no sign of Andrew and the trail went cold.
      Several years later Louise received some different images, which had been taken just seconds after the first picture.
      And this time, Andrew was obvious. He was standing right next to "Mullet Man."
      It turns out that a supporter who was climbing over the fence to flee the crush had obscured his face in the first image; somehow Louise had always known exactly where to look.
      Louise learned that "Mullet Man" had survived and could therefore be a key witness to Andrew's final moments. But when she eventually made contact with him, he was unable to provide the information she craved.
      "He didn't know or remember anything, he was too busy fighting for his own life."
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      Final resting place

      Even after 27 years and the ultimate vindication of the families campaign for truth and accountability, many still have more questions than answers.
      "I'm one of the lucky ones," she said paradoxically, "I've been able to watch Andrew die."
      Most of us wouldn't consider that lucky at all, but it means she has watched him die over and over again. She's seen him crushed on the terracing, dragged out of the pens and carried across the field.
      Through visual documentation, many years after the fact, she's been able to study the frantic efforts to revive him, his muscular spasms as he seemingly lapsed in and out of consciousness and his final resting place on the floor of the stadium's gymnasium, "with a bin-liner over his head."
      Andrew Brookes' grave.
      But there was always one piece missing. Louise was the last member of her family to wave Andrew off on the morning of the disaster, but she had never seen anything of him outside the ground, before the fatal crush.
      Remarkably, she thought that had changed in the days after the conclusion of the two-year inquest into the disaster. As she watched CNN's documentary 'They'll Never Walk Alone' she literally gasped.
      The film features a photograph taken outside the stadium, 30 minutes before kickoff. It's a grainy image, made public by the Hillsborough Independent Panel report in 2012. It's overexposed in places, showing around 25 fans queuing to enter through the turnstiles through which more than 24,000 supporters were expected to pass.
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      Louise was stunned and she immediately reached out to me on Twitter for more information as this was an image she'd been searching almost three decades for.
      "It took my breath away when I saw it," she told me, "even though it's not a big photograph, he just stood out straight away. I was instantly drawn to him."

      Glimmer of hope

      For years, Louise has been using her brother's eyebrows and trademark moustache to pick him out of those fateful crowds. In this image, such a man is barely visible. He's peering out over someone's shoulder and maybe, just maybe, into the eyes of his little sister in 2016.
      When we spoke on the phone, Louise was very upbeat; she was '99% sure' it was him.
      "If so," she said, "it will be a blessing. I want to see him arriving, to see how happy he was. It's my last memory of Andrew alive, I want to complete my story and put my mind to rest."
      But just 24 hours later I received an email from Louise, her disappointment aching between the lines of the brief message, "my solicitor has sent me the high resolution of that photograph and sadly it isn't Andy. I thought I would let you know."
      The still from World Sport's documentary that Louise thought she spotted her brother in.
      For so many Hillsborough families, this is the story of their lives. A constant struggle, occasional glimmers of hope, devastating letdowns.
      Last month's finding that their loved ones had been unlawfully killed was a good day; news that the authorities were responsible was what they'd been demanding for almost three decades.
      But that didn't mean everything went back to being normal, they still live the nightmare every day.
      Louise doesn't feel alone though. She describes some of the other campaigners as "sisters" -- people she'd never have met if Hillsborough hadn't happened.
      One of the men who worked to save her brother is now a friend, "he talks to me just as Andrew used to, and they have the same sense of humor."

      White feather

      Louise also strongly believes that Andrew has been guiding her search for answers.
      She says that every morning when she left for the inquest there would be a white feather by her gate, a white feather on the lawn when she returned.
      It happened with "such ridiculous regularity" that she could predict it. Towards the end of the inquest, she found another feather inside the court building and one more under her seat.
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      It takes her back to a dream she had two nights before Andrew died -- she was sitting on his grave. They joked about it the next day, "I'll be haunting you," she said.
      "No," quipped Andrew, "If I'm dead then I'll be the one haunting you." The next day, he was gone and it was no longer a dream, more a horrific premonition.
      Louise doesn't know if she'll ever cry for her brother, but knows that she is nearing the end of the struggle.
      She's buried both of her parents -- who went heartbroken to their graves, without knowing how their beloved son died -- and she's the last member of the family fighting for Andrew's name.
      Floral tributes laid in memory of the victims of the Hillsborough disaster.
      "I do believe that everything happens for a reason and I do believe that the 96 victims and their families were chosen for a reason, to ensure that nothing like this can ever happen again."
      Louise said at the inquest that she "doesn't live, she exists" and for one reason only, to ensure that Andrew's death wasn't in vain.
      She'll soon be moving back to Liverpool and plans to launch a foundation to help people with sibling survivor's guilt. It's an emotion that's tormented her for 27 years. Hillsborough will never leave her and she'll never stop looking for her big brother.