This was in today's Mirror. A good articleI'll do justice to my role as Hillsborough victim ... I was there and the trauma still scars me
Agony of new TV thriller's star
By Sue Evison 15/03/2007
ACTOR Neil Fitzmaurice makes a point of avoiding crowds - they bring back memories of the crushed, the helpless and the dying.
Eighteen years after the Hillsborough disaster, Neil still teeters on the edge of wild anxiety, gripped by the lingering effects of chronic post-traumatic stress.
As a young man, he survived the tragedy in which 96 football fans died - but the mental scars run deep.
Now, in a grim twist of fate, he has been cast to star in major new TV drama, Mobile - as a victim of Hillsborough who suffers from the same daily nightmares.
Here, for the first time, Neil - who co-wrote and starred in the hit comedy Phoenix Nights with Peter Kay and Dave Spikey - talks exclusively about how that terrible day affected his life.
"When I was cast for the role of Eddie nobody knew I'd been at Hillsborough nor suffered from post-traumatic stress because I've never told anybody before," says the 37-year-old father of four.
"But when I saw the script it was as though the part had been written for me. The fact that Eddie had been a victim of Hillsborough leapt out at me and I knew, because of my personal experience, that I could do the role justice."
Liverpool fan Neil was at the Sheffield stadium on April 15, 1989, to see his team play Notts Forest. But the day ended in tragedy when fans were crushed against fences.
Shortly afterwards, he began to exhibit the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. He continues: "I couldn't bear to wear anything tight-fitting, especially not a belt, because I always had in my mind the vision of suffocating. All my clothes were loose and baggy. I had panic attacks in crowds, I couldn't stand people around me.
"I couldn't go to sleep on my own... I had to have the TV and light on in the bedroom at night, because I couldn't bear silence. In the silence, the memories became vivid.
"I suffered from survivor's guilt. I didn't know why I'd lived and why so many others died. I hated going into pubs and hearing people laughing and having a good time. I wanted to scream at them to stop and remember the dead.
"I was eventually invited to Alder Hey hospital to be assessed. That's when I was diagnosed with chronic post-traumatic stress disorder."
Neil still suffers symptoms.
He says: "I am always hyper-alert in crowds. I try to avoid them if I can.
"I still have triggers - I can't stand to watch any scenes of violence on TV and I get anxious about silly things.
"I've learned to create a cutoff point when I get stressed where I tell myself, 'It doesn't matter. I was a minute away from death, but I'm alive.' That usually does the trick."
Eighteen years ago Neil, who still lives in his native Liverpool, had travelled down to Sheffield in a mini van with pals. Two of his three brothers were also at the game.
Half an hour after entering the stadium, he was fighting for his life as the crowds surged forward, crushing those in front against crash barriers.
With tears in his eyes, Neil recalls: "I was about midway up the terrace when suddenly this huge wave hit me, a human wave, carrying us forward several feet and then surging back. We were compacted like sardines, so squashed that the glass popped out of my watch. Everybody began to panic. The crush was so intense people were suffocating, dying next to me.
"Dead bodies popped up like corks from a bottle each time the crowd surged forward trying to get off the terrace and on to the pitch. It became a battle for survival.
"I saw people clambering over others as if they were body surfing, desperately trying to get over the chicken wire fence that was penning us in, but the police were forcing them back. They thought it was crowd trouble. They didn't realise what was going on.
"People were biting each other, to let the person next to them know they were alive. You could tell some people had given up the fight, you could see it in their eyes. They simply couldn't breathe and died where they stood."
With the help of a friend, Neil had clambered over bodies, dragging the man next to them with him.
HE says: "We managed to get to a barrier and climbed over. It was utter confusion, mass hysteria.
"I shouted at the man to climb over the barrier but when I let go of his hand he fell to the floor. He was already dead.
"I got on to the pitch and tried to help others pull down the chicken wire fence, but the police stopped us. I did a deal with God that day, just to stay alive. I was frightened for my brothers but, as I stood on the pitch, despite the screaming and the scrambling and the vast crowds, I looked up - directly into the eyes of one of my brothers.
"It was like a miracle. They were both safe in another part of the stadium. I fell to the floor with relief.
"I lay there, staring up at the sky. It was a beautiful, sunny day and suddenly I couldn't hear anything, as if the deafening screams and the carnage wasn't happening.
"It was as if my mind had put up a barrier to shut out the sheer horror of what was happening. I remember helping to carry dead bodies off the pitch to a temporary morgue. You don't realise how long a football pitch is until you have run up and down it several times.
"We ripped down the advertising hoardings to use as makeshift stretchers, wrapping the dead in our coats.
"There were many heroes that day. I am immensely proud of the way the Liverpool fans behaved.
"I remember a paramedic crying in my arms at the sheer hopelessness of the situation. Everybody was dazed, screaming about what had happened to them but the horror just kept on unfolding. We were forced by the police to queue to get out of the stadium.
"My first thought was to ring home, the same as everybody else, but there were vast queues at the phone boxes. There were no mobile phones in those days."
IN desperation, fans knocked on the doors of strangers asking to use their phones.
"Myself and two friends knocked on the door of a pensioner," Neil says. "We could see she was scared. We must have looked a sight and we were rambling but, God love her, she let us in to call home."
Neil returned home to find Liverpool in collective shock. He says: "They set up drop in centres immediately after the tragedy, and I saw a social worker who recommended that I should re-visit Hillsborough as a way of coping with the shock.
"I went back a week later. The pen in which we'd stood was still littered with evidence of the tragedy - watches, shoes, clothing, full cigarette packets, signs of lives which had been taken.
"I suffered a great deal of survivor guilt - many of us did.
"I set up intense friendships with people I'd never met before and spent months sitting all day in the pub with them, drinking and talking about what had happened to us.
"It was our way of coping with the trauma."
Despite his condition, Neil received no medication or comprehensive counselling.
Instead, he started on the road to recovery himself after travelling to Glasgow for a memorial match for the victims' families.
"I went in a car emblazoned with Liverpool insignia," he says. "People at bus stops were clapping us as we passed. Shopkeepers wouldn't let us pay for goods.
"I found the sheer kindness of strangers healing. The love we were given by the people of Glasgow comforted me more than anything else could have."
Neil, who also appeared in The Office with Ricky Gervais, says: "The anniversary of Hillsborough is next month and it seems fitting that I should share my experience so the tragedy is not forgotten.
"Even to this day, many of the victims can't speak about what happened to them. It has taken me until now to come to terms with it."
'I did a deal with God that day, to stay alive, to save my brothers'
MOBILE starts on Monday, ITV1, at 9pm.