Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Bradford City Stadium Fire – the forgotten tragedy of the 1980s

The 1980s was a decade of tremendous social upheaval, a time in which the Cold War, a conflict which had divided the world since the end of the Second World War, was drawing to a close, and a period of huge technological advancement. Yet amidst all of these grand changes, it seems to me that the 1980s was characterised by a series of disasters, each of which revealed that we weren’t quite as advanced as some may have liked to believe. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster shocked the world, and helped to demonstrate the potentially catastrophic impact of nuclear radiation upon human life, whilst the tragic sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise led to sweeping changes in the design of passenger ferries, and showed the extent to which profits had been placed above safety. Finally the Hillsborough Disaster, by no means a forgotten event and an easily preventable catastrophe, and one that finally forced football clubs to look at the quality of British stadia which had been allowed to degenerate and stagnate for decades, constituted the culmination of a decade in which the flaws of technological ‘advancement’ were made painfully and disastrously clear. However amongst such incidents, there is one that receives a criminal lack of representation, especially considering the scale of the suffering it inflicted upon those caught up in it. It occurred on what ought to have been a day of celebration, at the Valley Parade ground in Bradford, West Yorkshire. Having secured the Football League Third Division trophy following a 2-0 victory against Bolton Wanderers a week previously, Bradford City hosted Lincoln City in the final game of the season on May 11th 1985. Captain Peter Jackson was presented with the league trophy prior to the game, on a day that was supposed to have been marked with joyous celebration in the glorious sunshine. As with many other football grounds across the country, Valley Parade was at the time deemed to be “inadequate in so many ways for modern requirements”, and as such set to undergo a series of modifications aimed at improving the stadium’s safety. Whilst football fans nowadays are accustomed to safe and clean stadia, at this time the main stand at Valley Parade, incredibly, was composed of wooden seating and a tarpaulin roof, having remained largely unaltered since its creation in 1911. With both due to be replaced by concrete and steel respectively, at a cost of £400,000, in what was entitled “Spit and Polish for the Parade Ground”, it appeared that City were finally set to heed the warnings given to them by the local council, which specified that the problems with the stadium, including a build up of rubbish underneath the stand due to a gap between the seats “should be rectified as soon as possible”, prophesising that “a carelessly discarded cigarette could give rise to a fire risk.”

Tragically for the supporters present in the stadium on that fateful day, the prediction was to ring true. After 40 minutes of the first-half had passed, in what was described as a “drab affair with neither team threatening to score”, a glowing light was noticed three rows from the back of Block G. The fire is believed to have started due to a supporter discarding a cigarette or a lit match through the gap in the wooden flooring onto the rubbish accumulated below the stand, and despite the fire brigade being called just three minutes after a glowing light was spotted, nothing could be done to stop the flames spreading. An eyewitness, Geoffrey Mitchell, described the scene; "It spread like a flash. I've never seen anything like it. The smoke was choking. You could hardly breathe." The game was abandoned three minutes before half-time, as the pitch was engulfed by desperate supporters attempting to flee the stifling smoke and deadly flames. The stand's wooden roof, covered in tarpaulin and sealed with asphalt and bitumen, instantly caught fire, and along with the presence of a strong wind, caused the blaze to assume the appearance of a fireball as the entire stand was engulfed. Supporters attempting to find extinguishers with which to control the flames were fatally let down, as none were located in the passageways due to fear of vandalism. Those supporters attempting to escape found exits blocked, gates shut and no stewards present to assist in carving a path to safety. It took just four minutes for the antiquated stand to be engulfed in flames, with vast flumes of jet black smoke rising into the air. Some fans were killed by smoke, which simply filled passageways preventing any possible escape, whilst burning timber and molten materials fell on those below. "There was panic as fans stampeded to an exit which was padlocked. Two or three burly men put their weight against it and smashed the gate open. Otherwise I would not have been able to get out", the words of Geoffrey Mitchell on how he managed to survive the deadly blaze.

Most of those who were able to escape onto the pitch were saved, but a total of 56 supporters were not so fortunate. Of this number 54 were Bradford fans, with two visiting Lincoln City supporters, Bill Stacey and Jim West, also caught up in the tragic events of that fateful day. Some perished whilst attempting to escape through locked gates and blocked exits, others were killed in their seats by falling molten materials, whilst a retired mill worker died having been covered in flames from head to foot, with fans unable to extinguish the flames in time. As with many disasters, it was the young and old who suffered the most, with half of those who died under 20 or over the age of 70, including Bradford's former chairman and eldest supporter, Sam Firth, aged 86. More than 265 supporters were injured, with one policeman referring to the disaster as such; "it must have been survival of the fittest—men first." It took just four minutes for the fire brigade to arrive, but by the time they did it was too late. Policemen were forced to act as auxiliary fire-fighters, and showed absolute bravery, courage and heroism to prevent the tragedy claiming more innocent lives. The match was being recorded by Yorkshire television to be shown the following day on the regional football highlights show, the Big Match, and footage of the tragedy was transmitted minutes after it occurred on the ITV Saturday afternoon programme World of Sport. Bradford City chairman Stafford Heginbotham said of the disaster, "it was to be our day"; whilst Coach Terry Yorath stated "it is the worst day in my life". Unsurprisingly the disaster had a huge effect on those unfortunate enough to be caught up in it, with Christopher Hammond, who was 12 on the day, saying "as a 12-year-old, it was easy to move on—I didn't realise how serious it was until I looked at the press coverage over the next few days. But looking back and seeing how much it really affected my dad makes me realise what we went through." The disaster was of such magnitude that, in the words of Christopher's father Tony, "I began to feel guilty that I had got out when so many hadn't." Reflecting on the disaster, Matt Wildman, who was 17 at the time said, "I have never known anything like it, either before, or since. Everybody in the city was devastated, but there was an amazing number of volunteers. [...] I still have terrible memories of the day, but it is the humanity of those that helped us that I reflect on." Police Superintendent Barry Osborne, divisional commander for the area, said many of his officers cried when they saw how badly people had been burned.

Many people nowadays consider a last-minute goal against their team condemning it to relegation to be the end of the world, a crushing blow that they will never recover from. And rightly so, for football is a game based on passion, anger, elation, joy and devastation in equal measure. However sometimes an event occurs of such magnitude that it makes our footballing worries seem utterly selfish and totally unimportant by comparison. The horrific disaster of 11th May 1985 is one of these, and perhaps the most tragic event ever to afflict any professional sport. Watching the footage of the tragedy is almost impossible; whilst the desperation of those trying to escape is nothing less than chilling. One cannot imagine what it would have been like to be present at Valley Parade on that fateful day, to experience such a monumental tragedy and be caught up in what must have been quite literally hell on earth. Many point to Hillsborough as the most important football disaster of all time, but for me the Bradford City stadium fire cannot be considered as anything but equally important, and equally preventable. Whilst there will be those who will argue that the club was taking the necessary steps to improve the safety of its Valley Parade ground, in many ways this fire was inevitable. However the blame lies not with the club, nor the gods of fate. The policy of locking gates and blocking exits was not one unique to Bradford City, during an era in which the authorities favoured caging in supporters as though they were animals, and allowed ancient and totally unsafe stadia to degenerate when investment could have been made. As such the blame can only be pointed at the football authorities and the government of Margaret Thatcher, which idly sat by and allowed the country to be torn apart by social strife and consumed by a number of fatal disasters that could and should have been prevented. Whilst it is easy with hindsight to sit at a computer and state that a stand constructed entirely from wood and flammable materials was an obvious fire risk, it is deeply upsetting and infuriating in equal measure that the necessary steps had not been taken in time to prevent such an eventuality. In perhaps the cruellest irony one can imagine, the wooden grandstand was due to be replaced by concrete just 48 hours after the disaster, whilst the steel that was supposed to replace stand’s wooden roof was sat in the car-park behind the inferno. As Simon Inglis, a prolific writer on British football grounds puts it, “just another 90 minutes and the stand would have done its stint”.

The inquiry into the disaster, called in its immediate aftermath and chaired by Sir Oliver Popplewell, led to the creation of new legislation designed to improve safety at British football grounds, one of which prohibited the construction of new wooden grandstands at stadia in the United Kingdom. The tragedy was a desperate misfortune, and it is certainly true that there was no precedent, but the fact that this was the case as far as I'm concerned is due to nothing more than an extraordinary twist of fate. The Valley Parade stadium fire could have occurred at any ground with a wooden grandstand, and this fact ought to make this tragedy one that is shared by all football fans. The improvements made to Lincoln City's Sincil Bank home, which eventually totalled £3 million after the entire ground was deemed to be a fire hazard, may have been expensive by the standards of the time, but the fact that any organisation, institution, group or even individual could place cost-effectiveness above safety, as the football authorities during this particular decade and those that preceded it did, is extremely difficult to comprehend. The legacy of the tragedy is clear, with the re-developed main stand a triumph of modern engineering, design and most importantly, safety. At times such as these it is easy to say "their sacrifice wasn't in vain", but for this particular tragedy it is a necessary observation. Football as it once was shall never be again, and some may disapprove of how money-obsessed, corporate and unjust the game has become, but from the point of view of supporters' safety, the events of May 11th 1985 have done so much to ensure that my generation can watch football without fear of impending disaster, and as such the sacrifice of the 56 cannot be ignored.

Four police officers, David Britton, John Richard Ingham, Charles Frederick Mawson and Terence Michael Slocombe, and two spectators, Richard Gough and David Hustler, were awarded the Queen's Gallantry Medal for their actions. PCs Peter Donald Barrett and David Charles Midgley, along with spectators Michael William Bland and Timothy Peter Leigh received the Queen's Commendation for Brave Conduct. In total, 28 police officers and 22 supporters, who were publicly documented as having saved at least one life, later received police commendations or bravery awards. I believe that this should be what comes to mind when one thinks of that fateful day, the legacy of a truly unimaginable disaster. Whilst we ought to be angered and disgusted that such a horrific tragedy could have occurred, the contributions of those present on the day must never be forgotten. Watching the footage of the tragedy, and witnessing the tremendous acts of self-sacrifice and bravery has re-affirmed my faith in mankind, and belief that at times such as these the best comes out in people. So this year, when the 11th May comes around, just take a minute to remember the supporters who perished at the Valley Parade stadium twenty-five years ago. For those who do not fully understand the magnitude of what occurred that day, try placing yourself in a deadly inferno, surrounded by thick black smoke and the screams of people trying to escape. This was never just a tragedy for Bradford City and Lincoln City, it was a tragedy for the nation, and it must never, ever be forgotten, for if it were to be, the heroism of those who rushed into the flames to save their fellow supporters and the tragic deaths of those not fortunate enough to escape, will be both devalued and deeply, irreparably disrespected.