Thirty years ago today the Bradford City stadium fire – 56 remembered
Fifty-six people were killed, 265 were injured and thousands bared witness to the worst fire disaster in the history of English football. Thirty years on, the majority of survivors still find it too difficult to talk about what happened at the Valley Parade on 11 May 1985.
Mike Harrison, the editor of the Bradford City Football Club fanzine The City Gent, was there on the day.
“I was in the stand opposite when the fire broke out. We sat in the main stand the week before, but we had decided to move on that day,” he says. “I was supposed to meet my father at my grandfather’s house, but I was a bit late so I went straight to the game so I didn’t miss the festivities.”
The mood before the match on the 11 May 1985 against Lincoln City was one of jubilation. Bradford City had just won the Third Division Championship and a record number of spectators – over 11,000 – had turned out to see the club presented with its first piece of league silverware in 56 years.
After 40 minutes of the first half, fans had begun to complain about the drab match and the 0-0 score. At 3.40pm, five minutes before half-time, a glowing light was spotted three rows from the back of block G.
“We were stood in line with the 18-yard, the penalty area, when we saw some smoke and a bit of fire diagonally from where we were. We went over to the policeman stood at the corner flag and asked if it was being sorted out, and he said it was under control,” Harrison says.
“Since then I have thought of everything we could have done, but we didn’t have the presence of mind to run across the pitch and tell people to get out. We didn’t know how serious it was.”
Spread by the wind, the wooden roof, which was covered with tarpaulin and sealed with asphalt and bitumen, caught fire. Burning timber and molten material began to fall onto the seating below and black smoke enveloped the passageway behind, where fans were trying to escape. No fire extinguishers had been installed over fears of vandalism and less than four minutes after the fire was reported, the fire had engulfed the whole stand.
“It is unbelievable how quickly the fire took hold. People were scrambling for their lives to get out, and I know having sat in that stand normally that it is difficult and there is a drop to get to the pitch level,” Harrison says. “We couldn’t help because there were so many people streaming towards us, to our side of the pitch, to get away from the heat. From 50 to 60 yards away, it was burning our faces – it was unbearable.
“I remember not being able to watch it, but we couldn’t get out. They wouldn’t let us because then people would get in the way of fire engines, ambulances and police trying to get in. It was an awful thing to watch.”
Those who escaped walked to a nearby pub to use the phone to ring home, while others arrived in a daze outside the police headquarters to try and trace relatives.
The fire claimed young and old alike, with most fatalities occurring at the rear of the stand where people sought escape only to find turnstiles locked. Samuel Firth, a founder of the supporters’ club, was the oldest victim at 86; four 11-year-old boys were the youngest. The heat was so intense it caused car windows to shatter in the street.
Yet many of those with terrible memories of the tragedy also take heart in the compassion born out of the devastation. Within 48 hours of the disaster, the Bradford Disaster Appeal Fund had been set up and would eventually raise over £3.5m. The plastic surgeon who treated the injuries of over 200, Professor David Sharpe, went on to set up a world-renowned burns research facility at the University of Bradford.
“That was the legacy of the tragedy. It was sort of the good thing to come out of the nightmare,” says Simon Parker, a football reporter for the Telegraph and Argus. “It is the little things that show how much people are still involved – the fire still has a big impact on people. It wasn’t just something that happened in the past.”
Today, locals continue to raise money for the Plastic Surgery and Burns Research Unit in memory of the victims of the fire. At the final home match against Barnsley at the end of April, Bradford City fans collected more than £8,000 in a bucket collection. In the last few years, the BCFC kit-man John Duckworth did a sponsored 73-mile walk between Lincoln’s Sincil Bank stadium and Valley Parade, joined by Bradford fans along the way.
“The fire still has a big impact on people,” Parker says. “As well as those who lost their lives or were injured, there are the relatives and friends, the others who were at the game, and those who would normally have gone to the match but decided not to that day. Only then do you realise the huge network of people the fire involved.”
There has always been a close bond between the club and its supporters since the fire, he adds. “I know it’s a cliché to say that, but it’s true.”
Condolences to the friends and family of those 56 stars listed below (includes their age):
|ACKROYD, John Douglas||32||Baildon|
|BAINES, Alexander Shaw||70||Bradford|
|BULMER, Christopher James||11||Burley-in-Wharfedale|
|COXON, Jack Leo||76||Bradford|
|COXON, Leo Anthony||44||Halifax|
|CRABTREE, David James||30||Bradford|
|FLETCHER, Andrew||11||East Bridgford, Nottinghamshire|
|FLETCHER, John||34||East Bridgford, Nottingham|
|GREENWOOD, Felix Winspear||13||Denholme|
|GREENWOOD, Rupert Benedict||11||Denholme|
|HALLIDAY, Peter Anthony||34||Bradford|
|HODGSON, Moira Helen||15||Oakenshaw|
|LOVELL, Peter Charles||43||Bradford|
|McPHERSON, Gordon Stuart||39||Bradford|
|MIDDLETON, Frederick Norman||84||Bradford|
|ORMONDROYD, Gerald Priestley||40||Bingley|
|ORMONDROYD, Richard John||12||Bingley|
|ORMONDROYD, Robert Ian||12||Bingley|
|POLLARD, Sylvia Lund||69||Bradford|
|ROBERTS, Amanda Jayne||20||Bradford|
|STACEY, William||72||Sleaford, Lincolnshire|
|STOCKMAN, Craig Albert||14||Bradford|
|STOCKMAN, Jane Ashley||16||Bradford|
|STOCKMAN, Trevor John||38||Brighouse|
|TURNER, Howard Malcolm||41||Bingley|
|TURNER, Sarah Elizabeth||16||Bingley|
|WARD, Simon Neil||18||Shipley|
|WEST, William James||78||North Hykeham, Lincoln|
|WRIGHT, Adrian Mark||11||Bradford|