John Girdlestone’s story: ‘The most horrendous day of our lives’

The following story comes courtesy of Huddersfield University and a paper they have published on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The Bradford City Fire: The day of the match

Bradford City Fire MemorialSaturday 11th May 1985. The day itself started well, the weather was warm and just right for football or so I thought. I got on my motorbike and waved my wife and my two year old son goodbye and set off to Cottingley Bar, which is on the outskirts of Bradford, to meet my father.

When I arrived dad had made me a lovely lunch. Dad had tried to get us tickets for the main stand; as luck would have it, the seating area was sold out, so we’d have to settle for the paddock, which was situated in front of where the ‘fire’ started. After lunch, dad and I made our way down to Valley Parade.

The occasion

Dad had watched Bradford City all season and they had just been promoted to the second division and won the third division title, which was brilliant for the club and Bradford in general. On our way down towards the turnstiles we could tell it was going to be a good crowd; the official attendance was more than 11,000, which at the time was good.

The atmosphere was building and the opponents Lincoln City joined us in celebrating winning the trophy, which was presented to the Bradford team just before kick off.

Lucky to be alive

It was nearing kick off and things weren’t too bad, although something didn’t seem quite right and so it proved. My mind went back to my school days. At that early age I suffered depression on a manic scale. I attended Belle Vue grammar school. My friends and I used to go down to Valley Parade on an afternoon to watch the players as we got in for free.

Everyone that sat on those old wooden planks used to remark on all the rubbish that had gathered beneath the stands. There were cigarette packets, crisp bags, old programmes and newspapers. It was a complete dump. It was a very dry day and everyone was in a festive mood.

The match started, never to finish. The fire took just four and a half minutes to burn from one end of the stand to the other, stopping near the dressing rooms. It was a complete disaster. Everybody was just rushing to the exits. As dad and I were in the paddock, we just managed to climb onto the pitch using the dugouts as our get-out clause.

A few burly Bradford fans helped dad over the wall onto the safety of the pitch and I followed, very shocked and singed from the heat. Policemen, fire fighters, fans and even the players tried to help but their efforts were in vain. Dear old dad didn’t last much after the fire, which claimed the lives of 56 people and injured more than 250 more.

Worry

My wife at the time was worried about our whereabouts, as she had heard about it on the local news and had no contact with us to see if we were OK. I arrived home OK to the delight of my wife and son. The memories will never leave me and have made me anxious, panicky, depressed and near to suicide.

Weeks after the fire I tried to go back to work at the pit but, as I travelled to work one day, I heard someone make some awful remarks regarding the disaster. I couldn’t concentrate on the job and I had to stop working for a few months. I couldn’t sleep; I just kept having nightmares seeing all those people go to their deaths.

Bad dreams

The first year after the Bradford fire was horrific, as one would imagine. Even bonfires in local gardens brought back memories of that horrible day. The felt roofing, the wooden seats and all that rubbish, still the bad dreams never left.

Wakening without much sleep, could only manage cat naps. This deep rooted depression which was bad even before the fire was only to go away slightly over the next two decades. The only thought was to sit about the house, curtains pulled, unshaven and not being able to physically work down the pit.

Tablets and medication always close to me, too close! A few years on People couldn’t believe that I was so poorly, saying I should pull myself together. Even people close to me. Daniel now aged 5 didn’t understand what I was going through at that time. Daniel knew a few years on that I was poorly.

Five years later

I had to sort things out. My marriage had suffered, I needed to go back to work. Daniel’s mum and I decided to go into the licensing trade, hoping this would bring things together. I was trained as a manager, so I had a start and the backing of my ex-wife. She was a brilliant landlady, taking care of the money and ordering side of things. Life took on a different perspective. Until I had my second nervous breakdown. I managed to get a bit better, but my marriage ended soon after. Who would live with a person like me?

No help

Everything was at a standstill; I had no wife for help. Daniel was at school in Featherstone, but I only saw him three days a week. He had become a strong character, not letting my condition interfere with his education. Daniel, my eldest son John and daughter Victoria were all brilliant at their respective schools and they all have good jobs, which makes me proud.

Life today

Well, here we are nearly 20 years after the disaster. I am stronger and able to write this piece of work, whereas 10 years ago I couldn’t have managed it. I have had some first class training at Baghill House and Fieldhead Hospital1, which has proved very therapeutic. My son, who is now 21 and ironically a Bradford City fan, realises what his granddad and I went through and has helped me complete this work.

The main stand at Valley Parade has now been replaced by a brilliant structure, which incorporates a memorial with the names of those who lost their lives. Daniel helped me return to Valley Parade to watch football and overcome many obstacles and has been a big help to me. My thanks go to him and his mother, also Virginia, Chris and everybody at Fieldhead Hospital.

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