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After 23 years, British government apologizes over 1989 soccer disaster

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Children lay floral tributes at a memorial to the victims of the 1989 Hillsborough soccer disaster at Anfield stadium after the publication of the independent report into the incident on Sept. 12, 2012.

LONDON – Britain’s government apologized Wednesday after an independent report said there had been failures and cover-ups in the wake of the 1989 Hillsborough soccer disaster in which 96 spectators died after a crowd crush.

There were gasps from lawmakers as Prime Minister David Cameron announced the findings of the report, which marked the culmination of a 23-year campaign the families of victims of Britain's worst sporting disaster.

"On behalf of the government, and indeed our country, I am profoundly sorry,” Cameron said, adding: "It was wrong that the families have had to wait for so long - and fight so hard - just to get to the truth."

The victims died in an overcrowded fenced-in enclosure at the Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield, northern England, minutes prior to the start of a match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest.

It was a tragedy that changed the face of soccer in Britain and ushered in a new era of modern, all-seated stadiums. Britain was shocked by harrowing images of young fans crushed against metal fences, bodies lying on the pitch and spectators using wooden placards as makeshift stretchers on a warm spring afternoon.

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The report concluded police had sought to blame the Liverpool fans, portraying them as aggressive, drunk and ticketless and bent on packing into the already crowded stadium.

"The tragedy should never have happened," the report's authors said in a statement. "There were clear operational failures in response to the disaster and in its aftermath there were strenuous attempts to deflect the blame onto the fans."

Senior police edited their officers' witness statements from the day to paint them in a less damaging light, the report said. Their emergency response was flawed and badly organized.

While inquiries found hooliganism played no part in the disaster, the police crowd management plan was preoccupied with preventing disorder, the report said.

Liverpool fans had been tainted by the Heysel stadium disaster in Belgium in 1985. Fighting inside that stadium led to Juventus fans being crushed against a wall that collapsed. Six Liverpool fans and 33 supporters of the Italian team died.

The real danger at Hillsborough lay in the emergency services' poor planning and a stadium that failed to meet minimum safety standards, the report said. Its capacity was overstated and previous crushes at Hillsborough had been ignored.

The disaster is still an open wound in Liverpool, the port city of nearly half a million people that is passionate about soccer and has fielded players such as Kevin Keegan, Kenny Dalglish and Steven Gerrard.

All the victims during the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, held at the neutral ground of Sheffield Wednesday, were Liverpool supporters.

Trevor Hicks, of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, said: "We feel vindicated... We have had all sorts of accusations thrown at us over the 23 years." He added: "If today says one thing to the world, we are vindicated in our search for the truth."

In the aftermath of the disaster, a government spokesman incensed families by blaming the disaster on drunken fans. The report found no reason for the coroner's decision to take blood alcohol samples from all of the victims, including children. "The pattern of alcohol consumption among those who died was unremarkable," the report said. "The weight placed on alcohol levels was... inappropriate and misleading."

The disaster was also one of the low points for Rupert Murdoch's British newspaper group, currently reeling from a phone hacking scandal that has led to criminal charges against former senior executives and reporters. Its tabloid title, The Sun, accused Liverpool fans of stealing from the dying, urinating on policemen and beating up an officer who was attempting to resuscitate a victim. The newspaper's executives have since apologized for the story, which was found to be untrue. The editor at the time, Kelvin MacKenzie, apologized again on Wednesday - although his words were unlikely to end a long-standing boycott of the newspaper by consumers in Liverpool.

The Hillsborough Independent Panel, headed by the Bishop of Liverpool Rt. Rev. James Jones, was set up in 2010 to oversee the release of thousands of previously unseen documents related to the incident. 

ITV News is the UK partner of NBC News.

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