On 11 May 1985, 54 Bradford City supporters and two Lincoln fans never returned home from watching their beloved footballed team, and that sense of perspective and deep emotion has changed the club forever.
This Monday sees the 35th anniversary of that fateful day. To provide an in-depth story of what happened, including the aftermath, the following is part one of an extract from Jason McKeown’s 2018 book ‘Who We Are: Exploring the DNA of Bradford City’. Part two follows tomorrow.
As a warning, this goes into a lot of detail. So if you think you might find it difficult to read, you might want to avoid reading on.
“The citizens of Bradford behaved with quiet dignity and great courage…They buried their dead, comforted the bereaved and succoured the injured.” Sir Oliver Popplewell
It is Friday 11 May, 2018, and at Bradford Centenary Square there is a sombre atmosphere. A crowd of hundreds is gathering around the memorial stone that stands in remembrance of the Valley Parade fire, when 54 Bradford City supporters, and two Lincoln City fans, lost their lives.
On a bright but chilly morning, a tall row of Bradford City flags flutter in the breeze. There is a wide mixture of gatherers. People wearing coats, some in full suits and others braving it in short sleeve Bradford City shirts. Hats, scarves and ties in claret and amber colours are also on show. Groups chatter in hushed tones, with only the most occasional chuckle heard. Hugs are shared and hands are shaken, as people greet familiar faces.
The age range is vast. From the old and frail, to young children and babies. Different religions and faiths are represented too. I see so many supporters I recognise from attending games over the years. They’re mixing freely with the likes of Stuart McCall, Wayne Jacobs, John Hendrie, Mark Ellis and Mark Lawn. Notable figures from the past, who were either present for the fire, or who have some understanding of the sense of emotion. The full Bradford City squad are here too, including outgoing manager, Simon Grayson. Whilst at the front, Edin Rahic and James Mason stand next to civic dignitaries.
At 11am, the clock on City Hall chimes and there is total silence. The bells are rung to the tune of Abide With Me, followed by You’ll Never Walk Alone. Heads are bowed. Some begin to cry. A bible passage is read out with the aid of the speaker system. A moving speech is made, as the Reverend Canon Alistair Helm, Area Dean, Inner Bradford Deanery, draws on the way Bradford comes together to remember the fire as inspiration for how the city can rally against negative outside influences.
“There are many faiths, many countries of origin, many football teams supported, but our unity must always be rooted in the city of Bradford,” he proclaims. “Because if we don’t maintain that unity, in the face of unhelpful words and actions from those outside, who don’t know the place, then I believe we are not being faithful to those who lost their lives in that horror of 11 May, 1985.
“Let’s work together as a unity. Make sure their lives are not just remembered, but that we can say with utter confidence that they have brought about unity in this city of Bradford. We pray they rest in peace, and their memories live forever in this great city of Bradford.”
Helm’s words are followed by prayers. And then there is a period of silent reflection, where all you can hear is the faint sound of nearby traffic. Wreaths are laid by the memorial. Abide With Me is played out again, with many people singing.
It is a moving and humbling experience to be here. The 33rd anniversary of the Valley Parade fire disaster, marked every year by this annual memorial service. It is an introverted, and very Bradford event. In these social media times, the footballing world has been expressing its thoughts and solidarity with Bradford City throughout the morning.
But right here, right now, it is a public yet very private moment; where those who lost loved ones in the fire, those who survived on that fateful day and those who simply just care, come together to remember. There are no egos here. Famous faces stand and bow whilst stood in and amongst the crowd. A city, and a football club, united in sorrow.
“This is typical of the amount of people who attend every year,” Paul Firth informs me as the service ends. “You always see the same faces, even though some of us are getting older.” I join Paul and his wife, Ann, as the crowd moves from the square and inside City Hall, where tea, coffee and biscuits are laid on. The conversations inside the room are louder in volume and more upbeat in tone. But the atmosphere still feels charged with emotion. It looks, and feels, like a wake.
Paul was one of the thousands of people present at Valley Parade on that fateful day who survived the ordeal. A retired judge who now lives near Liverpool, Paul was sat in the main stand that had caught fire, with Ann’s father, Arnold, and his friend Robert. Paul introduces me to other people who, like him, were witness to the terrible tragedy and whose lives have been deeply affected.
Having written the excellent 2005 book Four Minutes to Hell, that tells the story of the awful events, and after appearing in several documentaries about the fire, Paul has become something of a public figure of the disaster. But he is very keen to stress that he has no ownership of the emotions that so many people harbour, and that everyone with a direct connection to the day has their own personal views and feelings.
There is undoubtedly a strong kindred spirit between people in the room, as Paul explains after handing me a cup of coffee. “It’s to do with things beyond football. It’s do with the social background. The human background. It’s almost an accident that this fire broke out in a football ground, it could have broken out in a theatre or a supermarket. But I’m not sure there would be the same act of remembrance, because football supporters tend to know each other as football supporters, and they don’t meet any other time.
“There’s a guy I sit with. We’ve sat in the same seats since the Midland Road was built in 1996. We only ever see each other at football. If you go back to 1985, when the crowds were a lot smaller, it was the same situation. Of all the people who were there, I probably only really knew a handful. But I knew a lot of them to nod to. And because of that, and the annual memorials, I can walk around this room now and go ‘He was there, he was there, he was there’.
“I stand at the back during the service because I can’t bear to be in the middle. I want to be out of the way. I’m almost claustrophobic with it. Other crowds I’m okay with. But that one, today, I’m not. I’ve actually had a couple of other years where I’ve just had to walk away. I can remember one occasion just walking around the town hall because I was too upset.”
Paul and others are very appreciative of the presence of people here today who were not present at Valley Parade on that fateful day. But he highlighted the different emotions that he and other survivors feel at occasions like this.
“There is an element, which I think is unavoidable, that for those people who were there, it’s different. This event is described as an act of remembrance, like Remembrance Day. There is a difference between an act of remembrance and an act of remembering. And you can actually only remember what you witnessed – and some of that you can’t – and so a lot of people are actually remembering.”
What is going through Paul’s mind on the anniversary? “I was standing there and there were images of faces who came to me. I found myself this morning – and I’ve done it before lots of times – with a curious mixture of emotions. As soon as they play Abide With Me I start crying, it’s happened to me every year. But I was also remembering other people, who were no longer here, or who aren’t actually here today but are about still. I was remembering them all with great affection. And so at the same time as I was crying, I was smiling – it doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
One of the people foremost in Paul’s thoughts was Ann’s dad Arnold, for whom the trip to Valley Parade on May 11, 1985 was meant to be a special 65th birthday present. As Paul, Robert and Arnold had attempted to flee the burning stand, they had got separated, and Arnold found himself unable to climb over the wall that would have led him to the safety of the pitch.
Then out of nowhere, two burly arms appeared and lifted Arnold out of the stand, and onto the grass. Those arms belonged to Bradford City striker John Hawley. “Ann’s dad died three and a bit years ago,” Paul reveals. “But we were very much together, and John Hawley saved his life. I’ve since seen John a few times and spoken to him. And one of the people who appeared to me this morning was John Hawley, with a smile. Thanks John. Because he gave us 28, 29 years of Ann’s dad, that we otherwise wouldn’t have had. We would have lost him, back in 1985.”
The remarkable stories of heroism on the day continue. “The lady you may have seen me talking to is called Gloria, she was the partner of supporter Dave Hustler, who is my all-time hero,” Paul shares. “She was talking to me about Matthew, who was one of the people who Dave rescued. Matthew was sitting just along the row from us. I didn’t know him, I just I knew him as a kid who sits just along the row. He was particularly easy to spot because he was on two crutches.
“He had rheumatoid arthritis, at 17, and could barely walk. And I can remember, on the day, Ann’s dad and I saying ‘The young lad on the crutches, what happened to him?’ Well what happened to him was Dave saved his life. And I see Matthew from time to time, he lives in Baildon, and again his face comes back to me, because he is remarkable in all sorts of ways, and he’s resilient.
“It’s just a very personal range of thoughts and emotions. Really personal. It becomes half a dozen names and faces. It’s only now, as I’m talking to you, the first time today, I’ve thought about what happened to me. I wasn’t thinking about what happened to me, I was thinking about the other people. I think it’s wonderful that people who weren’t there do come to this event out of respect, to perform an act of remembrance, even if they can’t remember. And I hope the annual service goes on for a long, long time.”
Saturday 11 May, 1985 should have gone down as one of the most glorious in Bradford City’s history. They were facing Lincoln City on the final day of the 1984/85 season, having five days earlier sealed the Division Three championship by defeating Bolton Wanderers 2-0 at Burnden Park.
A sparkling City side, packed full of young talent like Stuart McCall, Peter Jackson, John Hendrie, Mark Ellis and Greg Abbott, and superbly managed by Trevor Cherry and assistant Terry Yorath, had netted 77 goals and racked up 93 points. Promotion meant they would be leaving behind the bottom two divisions for the first time since 1937.
Before kick off, the players were presented with the championship trophy – the first piece of silverware the club had picked up since 1929 – and paraded it around in front of a healthy Valley Parade crowd of 11,076, which included dignitaries from Bradford’s twin German town, Hamm. There was an upbeat, jubilant mood amongst supporters, given the club had waited so long for a moment of such triumph.
John Helm was commentating on the game for Yorkshire TV and recalls how the day began with everyone connected to the club in great spirits. I meet him a few weeks later, in a pub just outside Keighley. “What I remember about it mostly was the glorious weather,” he recalls. “Nobody had anything in their minds other than this was a carnival. The result didn’t matter, Lincoln didn’t care. They were going to be presented with the trophy, a sunny day – what could go wrong?
“We had a routine at Yorkshire Television where we’d go for a lunch before every match. We went to the Victoria Hotel in Bradford, had our lunch and arrived at the ground. I did my usual preparation, talked to the players, manager, and all that sort of thing. It was just a normal day.”
In another sign of the club’s progress, it had been announced the wooden main stand – first constructed all the way back in 1907, and hardly changed – was going to be demolished and replaced with an improved stand, to fit the more stringent stadium requirements of playing in the top two divisions. Work would begin in two days’ time.
The Lincoln game would be the last where the old main stand would be used and just over 3,000 supporters were packed inside it to enjoy the carnival atmosphere. The match that followed against the bottom-half-of-the-table Imps was almost incidental, and absolutely nothing of note occurred during the first half.
But, just before half time, tragedy was to strike. Underneath the main stand’s wooden floorboards, rubbish had accumulated over many years, much of it flammable. The gap was, in part, a natural occurrence of the fact Valley Parade had been constructed on a hill, leaving a void between the floorboards and the ground below. When the stands were cleaned after games, some of the waste would also be pushed through the gaps between the floorboards.
The rubbish had been built up for many years – the police would later discover a copy of the Telegraph & Argus amongst the litter, dating all the way back from November 1968. A forensic scientist, Dr. David Woolley, would later conclude that a cigarette had been stubbed on a polyester cup, before accidentally falling through the floorboards. Still partly alight, the cigarette set the rubbish around it on fire. The first visible signs of fire came at 3.40pm. Within a matter of minutes, the whole stand was in flames.
The police radio recording of the day shows that, by 3.41pm, the call had gone out to evacuate the main stand and to summon the fire brigade. At 3.42pm, someone can be heard requesting that the doors at the back of the stands be opened. In line with regular practice at the time, at clubs up and down the land, the entrances at the back of the stand were boarded up or padlocked – the intention was to prevent people sneaking into the ground after kick off, without paying.
This left people trapped at the back of the stand. Some were able to force the doors open and escape, others were not so lucky. The only way out was via a small gap at the side adjacent to the Kop stand – where hundreds escaped – or at the front of the seating section of the stand, down onto the paddock terrace below, and then climbing over the perimeter wall onto the pitch. But this five-foot wall was not easy to mount, and there was a large drop to the pitch below.
By 3.44pm the game was stopped by referee Don Shaw, after he was alerted to the situation by the linesman. Fans in the main stand and Kop began pouring onto the pitch. Many turned back to begin helping other fans escape, with some of the players and Yorath helping the police in the rescue efforts. In total, 28 police officers and 22 spectators would be publicly documented as having saved at least one life.
By 3.47pm, the whole stand was in flames, with thick black smoke bellowing in the Bradford air, visible for miles. The fire crew and ambulances arrived within four minutes of the emergency call going out.
“The whole place is scorching…this is horrific,” stated John Helm during his live commentary. “This is a burning hell.” Reflecting back on events, 33 years on, he tells me: “The match was rubbish, but I half-expected it to be. I was looking right across and there was a throw in, and I’m seeing on the picture a tiny glow behind McCall as he was taking a throw in.
“In TV you have a talkback key, and I spoke to our director Peter Jones, and I said ‘There looks to be a small fire in the stand, can you get a camera on it?’ He said he could, and that’s where I said on air ‘There appears to be a small fire in the stand’.
“Four and a half minutes later the whole lot had gone. There was black smoke going hundreds of feet in the air. People were running for their lives. People were climbing over the wall. And what I obviously didn’t know was that the exits at the turnstiles were closed. It sends a shudder through me now. If I’d have thought about that at the time, I might not have been able to carry on.”
But John and his colleagues continued to provide coverage of what was happening, which would shortly be transmitted live to the country via the Saturday afternoon ITV programme World of Sport.
“To his eternal credit the director told me to keep talking and keep calm. And I did. The worst thing for me was that some of the supporters had gathered down in front of the shed above the Midland Road Stand, where I commentated, and they started stoning me. Shouting ‘Switch your effing cameras off’. Well it’s a good job we didn’t. You couldn’t switch the cameras off.
“One of our cameramen was actually helping to get people out as he was filming. The extent of it didn’t hit me until later. Two little boys came climbing up and said ‘Mr there’s two dead down there’. That sent a shudder through me, it really did.”
In 2010 – the 25th anniversary of the disaster – the BBC website published an article featuring survivors sharing their memories. Andy Harrison from Harrogate recalled: “All of a sudden a fireball raced along the stand under the roof towards us, standing at the changing room end of the pitch. We made our way down the stairwell to the back of the terrace in an attempt to get out of the ground and away from the fire. The exit doors were locked and had to be kicked open.
“As we managed to get out onto Holywell Ash Lane I heard the sound of breaking glass, followed by Terry Yorath – who I now occasionally see in a pub in North Leeds – jumping from the window to escape. There were people everywhere, most of them in a state of shock. We were a close-knit football club, and it seemed that everybody in the area knew somebody who died or was injured in the fire.”
Kevin Mitchell from Bradford added: “I quickly ran to the back of the stand while my friend went on to the pitch. Neither of us spoke, I think we just reacted, realising that something serious was developing. As I reached the back of the stand, I saw the smoke rolling towards us and making a ‘whooshing’ noise. Rapidly everyone was engulfed in smoke and I recall a chap walking towards me motioning his hands in a downward manner, begging everyone to be calm.
“Someone had kicked down a narrow doorway and it was through that gap that I made my exit, coughing through smoke inhalation, but I believed I had escaped reasonably easily. Outside the ground there was not so much panic but confusion. I waited to see people I knew were at the ground. It seemed an age, but I eventually found out that everyone I knew was safe.”
John Helm continues: “I had to go down to the pitch once I’d finished the commentary, to interview the people down there. I remember interviewing the Lord Major of Bradford. I remember interviewing Peter Jackson, who’d been desperately looking for his wife Alison. He had a duffle coat on over his City shirt. Terry Yorath dived through a window to save somebody. I was interviewing several people and it began to dawn on me. The detective chief inspector was a personal friend of mine, and he told me ‘There’s a lot of bodies’. My head went. It was horrendous.”
Back at the memorial service Paul Firth reveals: “There’s a part I’ve not been able to remember. It’s called Fugue Syndrome, and it’s where your head doesn’t want you to remember, so it stops you remembering. I’ve got a period of time that I’ve never been able to account for. There’s nothing I can do to recall it, and I’m not sure I want to.”
His friend, Robert, with whom he was sitting with on the day, has joined us, and tells me that, after escaping the fire, he somehow ended up being in Bradford city centre – but has no recollection of how he got there.
Paul continues: “We all did daft things. I can remember asking a policeman ‘Did everyone get out?’ which now seems a stupid question. But I didn’t think it was stupid at the time. And I remember this young policeman just shrugging his shoulders, which was meant to say ‘I don’t know’ but really said ‘I don’t think so’.”
Ann, who was not at the game, adds her own memories of learning about the fire on a drive home and the panic of not knowing if her husband and dad were okay. “When we were standing in Centenary Square just now, I was re-living driving back home up Leeds Road and hearing about the fire on the radio, my dad, Paul, Robert – what’s happened?
“Thankfully it didn’t take long to find out they were okay. We were so lucky in all sorts of ways that day. Because I only had a wait of five minutes. I was very close to home when I turned on the car radio and found out what had happened. And I thought, I just had to get home and find out what has happened. But as I drove along the road I could see that our car was outside our house, and immediately I felt a great sense of relief. But if you’re thinking straight, which of course you’re not, it doesn’t mean perhaps everyone has managed to get home. Yet immediately I took it to mean they were okay.
“They were and they weren’t. Because yes, they had got home, but our neighbour had taken them out to hospital. Our neighbour’s wife was there to greet me and said ‘They’re okay’ and that her husband had driven them to Otley hospital.”
Paul adds: “I think that most of us feel so fortunate to have got out, relatively unscathed. I had a small burn. Ann’s dad had a much bigger burn that needed surgery.”
Most of the 56 people who lost their lives at the fire did so whilst still within the stand. The fire had originated in block G, close to the Kop and, further along towards the Bradford End, there wouldn’t have been an awareness of the fire until it had significantly escalated.
Glynn Leesing, who was a constable with West Yorkshire, was one of the first to notice fire had broken out. In 2015 he told a BBC Yorkshire documentary: “The crowd didn’t move at all, they remained seated, engrossed in the football match, almost oblivious to what was happening.” Those who died included an elderly couple who were still sat upright in their seats, 27 who were trapped at the back of the centre of the stand by the turnstiles, and others that were crushed as they tried to crawl under turnstiles to escape.
One retired mill worker made it onto the pitch but would die later in hospital. Half of those who died were either aged under 20 or over 70. The fire crew worked until 4am the next morning, extinguishing the fire and removing the bodies.
There was also the injured, who totalled 265. All the nearby hospitals were alerted to the situation and operated to maximum capacity to treat the badly burned and injured. David Sharpe, the plastic surgeon, led a team of around 15 surgeons, who operated on around 80 people over the next few days.
He would later recall: “It was a cold day, so a lot were wearing wool, which is a brilliant protection…We cleared four wards and allocated four surgeons to each of the four operating theatres. It was easy to work out what we needed – tangential excision – that is cutting off the burn tissue and immediately grafting. By operating aggressively and early, it worked out.” Because of this pioneering work over a frantic period, Sharpe would later establish the Plastic Surgery and Burns Research Unit at the University of Bradford, making the city a pioneer in the field of plastic surgery. It is now recognised as one of the top research units in the country for skin healing and wound research.
Those who escaped the fire without injury were taken to neighbouring homes and the Belle Vue pub. The local Manningham community – mainly made up of Bangladeshi people – opened up their doors to help supporters in a state of shock. They provided calmness, cups of tea, clothing and a phone to which people could contact relatives to confirm they were safe. It was a huge gesture of support that was greatly valued by those it helped.
And in that minutes and hours that followed the disaster, the lines of communication were vital. This was long before the days of mobile phones, so getting in touch with people was a challenge. As the news spread of what had happened at Valley Parade, relatives of City supporters, who knew their loved one was at the game, were in an understandable state of panic, trying to find out if they were okay.
The Owen family is one such typical story. John, a 10-year-old, was in the village of Crosshills, some 13 miles away from Valley Parade, playing cricket, watched by his parents. His sister Caroline, then a 16-year-old, was at the match, sat in the main stand right next to where the flames of the fire were first seen.
Caroline recalls: “Because we’d won the league, and my brother was playing cricket with my parents there watching him, I went to the game with my best friend at the time, Pippa, who had never been to a football match before. My dad got us tickets for the main stand, about two-thirds of the way up, on the right, near the Kop. Initially the day was really lovely. I remember people drinking some form of sparkling cava or something. And things going around the stand.”
Even when the fire became visible, there wasn’t any great concern at first. “People near us started moving, as the flames were coming through,” Caroline continues. “There was a bit of a stirring, but nothing panicky. I was still watching the game as we moved along. We got to the back of the stand, and – at that stage – we were in a bit of a queue.
“I think my friend had forgotten that we were going to a friend’s house that night, and she had left behind a chocolate orange on the floor. We looked back to go and get it and realised that our seats were on fire. We realised then that it was serious.” Caroline and Pippa abandoned the slow-moving queue and moved diagonally across to the front, where they would escape onto the pitch. From there they surveyed the shocking sight of the stand going fully up in flames.
“It was surreal, watching it. Everyone was calm, you were watching in a state of ‘It’s not really happening’. I saw people coming out who were injured. In my brain I was thinking I hope everyone got out, but I wasn’t really contemplating the worst. You just think ‘I hope everyone has got out’.
“I wouldn’t have a clue how long we stayed around for, maybe 15 minutes. We left the ground and didn’t really know what to do. The buses weren’t running, so we went into town. My boyfriend at the time worked a Saturday job at Boots, so we wandered in there to find him. He was a Bradford City fan and I remember him asking ‘What on earth is going on? People have been walking past’.
I can’t remember how we got home. I think maybe a train to Bingley. Then we got the bus from Bingley to Eldwick. Pippa went home to her parents and they drove straight back to my house to be with me.”
For John Owen it had all started out as something of a run-of-the-mill afternoon, that suddenly turned into panic: “It was a beautiful sunny day. My mum and dad were watching my game and my sister was at the match with her friend from school. She was not an avid football match goer but went to the occasional big game – and obviously this was a big game.
“I remember a break during the innings, we asked someone on the sidelines what the football scores were. And they said ‘Liverpool are winning, Leeds are losing, there’s been a fire at Bradford’. At which point my mum went potty, dragged me and my dad into the car, and off we drove.”
They were relieved to find Caroline at home. “I can’t remember if we tried even to get near the ground or not, but I remember getting home and my sister was there. And just the smell in the house. I didn’t know what it was. But it was obviously the smell of something burning. She was uninjured and I remember as a 10-year-old boy thinking ‘My sister could have died’, as by then we had heard that people had died. And then it was almost never spoken about again. It’s just the Bradford way. You just get on with things.”
Caroline adds: “I remember watching it on TV and seeing me and Pippa in our seats. It was a really weird feeling. And then the news came out of what happened. Yet we all went out for dinner that night. It was bizarre. I was taking my French Oral exam the next week after the fire. And I wasn’t sleeping. My dad rang the headmistress and left me a note saying that the headmistress had said there would be no concessions, just try your best. And I’ve still got the note. I kept it weirdly.”
Part two will appear tomorrow.