Charlotte was only 18 months old and we imagined at the time that she would have no memories of the fire. But it affected her almost straight away. Before the fire, she had always been a good sleeper. She had a regular bedtime and would go down at half past seven without any trouble. But almost from the day of the fire, until she was nearly five years old, she would never, ever sleep in her own room.
We’d put her into her cot and straight away she would cry and scream and try to clamber out. We’d take her downstairs for a few minutes then put her back in her cot and the same thing would happen all over again. And again and again and again. We persevered because that was the thinking at the time. But she just would not have it. When she progressed to her own little bed, she’d simply climb out and creep quietly downstairs. We’d suddenly be aware that she was in the room.
For months and months, I had to lie down on the floor beside her and eventually she would nod off. But as soon as I moved a centimetre, she’d be awake again. In the end, we put her mattress at the side of our own double bed and she’d sleep fine with Peter and me alongside her.
When she was three she started going to playschool and one of the first things she was asked to do was paint a picture showing what her mummy or daddy did. She painted a big orange triangle, the shape of a bonfire and behind it a man in a striped shirt. The teacher asked what it was and she replied, “That’s daddy and that’s the fire.” And we’d thought a little baby wouldn’t have any memories of that dreadful day. Thankfully, she doesn’t recall anything now.
It should have been one of the happiest days of our lives. Instead, it was one of the worst. Before every match Peter had a set routine that began with steak and chips for tea the night before. The dieticians wouldn’t like that these days, would they? Then he had to go to bed at the same time every week, before 10pm. Yet however much he tried to make the game against Lincoln just like any other match, it was never going to be that. This was the day Bradford City would be receiving the Division Three Championship trophy and Peter was the captain. I remember him leaving for the match far earlier than usual because he was so excited and so keen to get down to Valley Parade.
My mum called during the morning to see how we all were and said dad was getting ready to go to the match as well, again far earlier than he needed to. My brothers were all going, too. So was Peter’s dad and his brothers. And, of course, me and Charlotte. It was going to be a big family occasion. Dad picked us up at around 12.30pm, normally it would have been an hour later. We parked up as usual in the Polar Ford dealership on the main road, where my brother Mark worked. And we realised straight away that there was a fantastic atmosphere all around the stadium.
Because Charlotte was so small, I’d decided beforehand not to sit in the stand and instead went into the players’ lounge at the city end of the ground. It’s still in the same spot today. There were a couple more wives in there with their babies and we were all so thrilled when the team came out about half an hour before the kick-off and Peter was presented with the trophy. The players did a lap of honour and I just remember looking at all the happy faces of the fans and being so proud of Peter.
When the match kicked off, I sat in the left hand corner of the bar, keeping one eye on the football and one eye on Charlotte. I couldn’t actually see right into the stand to my left because there was a big wall in the way but a few minutes before half-time, I was aware that there was a bit of a hoo-ha at the far end of the ground. One or two fans were spilling on to the pitch.
Football hooliganism was still a big problem at the time and I thought somebody had started fighting or causing trouble. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to do that on such a happy day. Almost immediately the game stopped and the players all seemed to be looking into the stand at something I couldn’t see. Then all of a sudden the doors at the back of the bar were pushed open and people who had been in the stand started pushing their way into the room and heading for the exit at the far side of the bar.
My instinct was to grab hold of Charlotte and fight my way through the crowd and out of the doors at the back. But so many people were coming into the bar that way that it was impossible. I knew something was happening out in the stand but I was helpless to do anything about it. All I could do was pick up my baby in my arms and try to stop us being pushed too far into a corner and getting crushed. It had all happened in a few seconds and I still had no idea what was going on.
There was no noise, either inside the room or outside in the stand. No real panic. No shouting or crying out. It was eerie. Through the open door I could hear a windy, whirring noise, a kind of whoosh. Charlotte and I were being squeezed right into the corner away from the exit and I was getting really, really frightened. We were facing the pitch and there was nowhere for us to go.
I didn’t cry for help or anything but I was starting to really panic when a pair of arms were wrapped around us both and we were dragged bodily through the crowd of people in the room and out of the exit door. It was Peter, still in his kit. Looking back, I think some of the fans stepped aside to let him pull us through. Obviously they now knew what was happening outside, recognised him and could see he was trying to rescue his wife and baby.
We squeezed through the door. Outside there was a wall and a flight of stairs leading down to the players’ tunnel area. By the time we escaped, the heat was overpowering and the room was already filling with smoke. People were pushing and scrambling to get down the stairs and on to the pitch. There was a ten-foot drop from the wall down to ground level and Peter jumped over.
I passed Charlotte down to him and he shouted, “Jump, just jump. I’ll catch you. Jump!” So I jumped. I was wearing a brand new pair of leather pants and for a split second, I thought, “Bloody hell, I bet I’ve scuffed my new pants.” Peter was holding Charlotte in one arm so he eased me down to the ground with his other hand. Then we ran out of the ground and on to the cobbled street outside the stadium.
Peter knew exactly what was happening because he’d seen the fire starting from the pitch and he knew he had to get us as far away as possible as quickly as he could. As we ran away, I looked back and for the first time saw the smoke billowing out of the stand. I thought, “God, dad’s in there, so are Paul, Mark and Jonathan. And Peter’s family.” For the first time I was terrified. Peter led us halfway up the street and then we stopped beside a wall. He told me to wait there with Charlotte and said he was going back into the ground to see what he could do. I said, “No, you can’t go back in there. What can you hope to do?”
He said, “I’ve got to go back in.” I pleaded with him not to do it. By this time there were people who’d escaped from the stand wandering around with their burned clothes stuck to their backs. The clothes had melted in the heat. They were in a daze, in total shock and had no idea that they were badly burned. It was horrific. The fire engines and ambulances started to arrive and everyone seemed to be rushing around in all directions.
There were loads of people wandering aimlessly about asking where their loved ones were. I was asking the same question. I knew Peter was safe but what about my dad and brothers, what about Peter’s dad and brothers? It was obvious even then that people must have died in the fire. Peter said he’d go and try and find out where they all were and I begged him not to try and go back into the stand. But he couldn’t have done so even if he’d tried.
The houses in the street were occupied almost entirely by Asian families and they had all come out on to the street with blankets, cups of tea and glasses of water, asking people if they wanted to come inside to use the phone – there were no mobiles then. Eventually, after what seemed like an age but was only a few minutes, my dad found us. Peter had spotted him and told him where Charlotte and I were and he told us my brothers were all OK, too.
One of the residents asked if I’d like to ring anyone to say we were safe and I said, “Yes, I just want to phone my mum.” She’d said she was going to listen to the match on the radio so I knew she’d know what had happened and would be worried to death.
I said, “Mum, I can’t talk for long, I’m using someone else’s phone. But Charlotte, me, Peter and dad are safe. So are Paul, Mark and Jonathan.” That’s all she wanted to hear. I rang off. She said later that it had been the worst thing that had ever happened to her because she felt so helpless. She was just sat at home listening to the radio when she heard that the fire had started. Then the flames burned through the radio cable at the ground and the line was cut off. So she’d no idea what had happened after that. She always said my phone call was the most important she had ever had in her life. Something she would never forget.
Word eventually filtered through to Peter that all the players had to meet up at the pub at the top of the road, the Belle Vue, and he told me that’s where he was going. It was a pretty seedy place as I recall but they had to find somewhere to do a head count. I told him that Charlotte and I would be OK, that we’d go back home with my dad and the important thing for him was to make sure his dad and brothers were safe as well. Thankfully they were. And so we left. As we were driving home, I couldn’t help wondering if it had all really happened. It just seemed so unreal, the kind of thing you see on the telly and think how terrible; the kind of thing that happens to other people.
I don’t think I was in shock, more a sort of daze. Dad dropped us off at home and then all I wanted was for Peter to be home soon as well and to know everyone was safe. I don’t remember what time Peter eventually arrived but I seem to think it wasn’t as long as I’d expected. Like me, he was still in a daze about it and he hadn’t been in long when a great big outside broadcast van pulled up outside the house, accompanied by a couple of motorcycle outriders.
I don’t remember whether it was the BBC or ITV or who the commentator was. But Peter was asked if he’d go outside and talk about what had happened. He nodded and went out. He still had his kit on. They wanted to talk to me as well, and afterwards I made tea and biscuits for everyone while my mum kept an eye on Charlotte until the television people had gone. The film of the fire was on all the news bulletins and we just sat there watching it over again and feeling numb. Eventually, I put Charlotte to bed and I went, too. Peter stayed up all night, stunned.
It was a day I could never, ever forget. First the silence, the whooshing sound and then the noise as the rescue started. The burned people and the crushing. The smell is still as vivid as it was all those years ago. For a long time afterwards, if I went to a ground where the stand had old wooden floors, I was petrified. I used to think that if it had happened once it could happen again but of course the Valley Parade fire meant that wooden stands are now a thing of the past. I’ve never been a nervous person at all but those wooden floors filled me with terror. And to this day, whenever I go into a stadium, a cinema or any big public building, the first thing I look for is the fire escape and my quickest route to it. And if I’m ever in any kind of crush, I wonder straight away how I’m going to escape. I’ve been there before, you see.
Peter went back to Valley Parade the following week and had a look in the bar at where Charlotte and I had been before he forced his way in. He walked over to where we were standing when he spotted us and on the floor was a melted blob of yellow plastic. It was Charlotte’s little Tippy Tuppy feeder. Just a melted blob of yellow plastic.
Would we have died if Peter had not come in? Who knows. To the best of my knowledge the flames never reached there and I don’t think anyone died in the room. But clearly the heat and smoke were overpowering and anyone who had not been able to escape would have perished.
How did it affect me? Once the immediate aftermath had settled down, I was able to draw a line under it and move on. I don’t honestly think there have been any other long-term effects. The day itself remains an absolutely horrendous memory and something I will never be able to erase from my mind. And I think anyone who was there would say the same thing. Of course it would have been very different if one of my family or Peter’s relatives had been killed or burned and I know I would never have got over the trauma.
In the aftermath, I had to be there for Peter as he attended funerals and organised the players’ hospital visits and fundraising evenings for the survivors and the relatives of the dead. We were both on autopilot at the time but I saw a light at the end of a long tunnel and aimed for it. I just thank God we all still had a life ahead of us.
Living with Jacko – From Touchline to Lifeline by Alison and Peter Jackson.
Published by Great Northern Books www.greatnorthernbooks.co.uk. ISBN:978-0-9576399-3-5
Personalised, signed copies are available at no extra cost from www.greatnorthernbooks.co.uk