When Karl Hepton looks into the eyes of his beautiful daughters, he sees flashes of his granny Nellie.
And he knows that if it wasn’t for her selflessness and courage, he wouldn’t have lived to become their father.
Karl was just nine when he was in the Bradford City football stadium fire – one of sport’s biggest tragedies, claiming the lives of 56 people.
But thanks to his 64-year-old grandma, he survived. She saved his life by lifting him out through a broken window and lowering him to the smoke-free stand below. Nellie Foster, however, couldn’t save herself.
This Tuesday marks the 25th anniversary of the disaster but a quarter of a century has done little to quell Karl’s grief. His eldest daughter Scarlett is the same age as he was then, a comparison which chokes him up.
D’arcy, three, is too little to understand yet, but Karl will sit her down in time.
Now aged 34 and telling his story for the first time in an emotional interview, Karl says: “I look at Scarlett and think, ‘God, that’s how old I was’.
“I owe everything to my grandma, my whole life. Everything. I would have died if she hadn’t got me out at that point because there’s no way we would have made it to the exit at the other side of the stand.”
May 11, 1985, had begun as a day of celebration in Bradford. The top-of-the-table team had already secured promotion to the old second division and this, the final match of the season against Lincoln, was all set to take place amid a carnival atmosphere in front of a packed Valley Parade.
Nellie had only started taking Karl to watch her beloved Bradford City that season. Every home game, grandmother and grandson would set off together to cheer on The Bantams. Karl remembers that day as initially being particularly special as they watched from E block of the wooden main stand. He says: “The players came out to applaud the crowd and accept the trophy before kickoff. It was like one big party.”
But, with the first half well underway, fans noticed the first billows of smoke coming from the seats in G block.
They laughed it off – no one could have possibly known what was about to happen.
But Karl recalls: “It got much bigger very suddenly. People started to move away from the smoke, trying to get on to the pitch but the police told us to get to the back of the stand.”
By now panic was starting to set in. As Karl and Nellie made their way to the rear of the main stand, the smoke became thicker and blacker as the flames spread. They assumed they would make their escape through the doors to adjacent blocks but found them bolted shut.
The only escape route was along a narrow, dark passageway which led to the safety of A block, where Karl’s father John had been watching, knowing his son and mother-in-law were at the heart of the chaos. Within minutes, those innocuous clouds of smoke had become an inferno, engulfing the stand in flames.
“We were so cramped because of the volume of people trying to get out,” says Karl. “That was when I started to get really frightened. All I could see over my head was this black smoke and the corridor was getting busier and busier.
“There were a lot of people who had fallen over who couldn’t get back up and were just getting trampled on.”
Eventually Karl and Nellie reached a kiosk and spotted an arm sticking out of the side door.
Coughing and gasping for breath, they were both pulled into the shop and the black smoke cleared. “It was grey and I could see the pitch for the first time in what seemed like an age,” says Karl. “The man who had grabbed us then smashed a window at the front of the kiosk which was going to be our only way out.”
Tears roll down Karl’s cheeks as he recalls what happened next. “My grandma picked me up and dangled me over the window ledge and lowered me down towards the seats.
“She told me, ‘Run! Run!’ And so I did. I ran jumping over the flip-up seats, not looking back. At one point I got my foot caught in one of the seats and started to really panic. Everywhere was red hot. My scalp was in pain from drops of melted tarpaulin and I had to pull my red skijacket over my hands to stop them from burning.” He managed to scramble on to the pitch, one of the last to get out alive before the roof collapsed.
He immediately looked round for Nellie. “I just assumed she’d be there behind me,” he says. “It was total pandemonium on the pitch. A man ripped my coat off my back because it was about to go up. But I just wanted to find my grandma and my dad.
“People were saying that everyone had got out. After about 20 minutes, I spotted one of my dad’s friends and we decided to go and wait by the car outside. Half an hour later my dad arrived. He picked me up, hugged me and asked where my grandma was.”
Karl and John had another search before deciding Nellie may have made her way home. Even at that stage, the talk was that everyone had got out alive.
“We got back and my mum popped her head out the door, asking where her mum was,” says Karl, before breaking off to compose himself, still choked by the memory.
“My mum had been shopping in Bradford and seen the smoke. They went round all the hospitals but couldn’t find her.” It was two days before they received the news they had been dreading. Nellie’s purse was found close to where Karl had left her and she was confirmed among the dead.
Karl, a building site foreman who still lives in Bradford with his daughters and social worker partner Simone, vividly remembers the devastation felt by his close-knit family and how the local community was rocked by the death of a woman everyone had been so fond of.
“She was just a lovely woman,” he says. “She was very well known in our village because she used to work in the market on a stall selling socks.”
An inquiry concluded the fire was most likely started by a discarded cigarette which had dropped through the timber stand’s floors on to piles of litter which had been building up beneath for years.
The tragedy changed the face of football, with wooden stands banned and other safety measures introduced, although they didn’t prevent the Hillsborough disaster three years later.
Valley Parade reopened in December 1986 and Karl has continued to be a regular at the ground ever since.
He adds: “I wasn’t nervous about going back because I’ve always loved football. But that first time back I looked over to the side of the ground where it happened and remembered my grandma.”
Karl, who this Tuesday will attend a memorial service at Valley Parade, treasures the pictures he has of him and Nellie together and he tells his girls about the great-grandma they never knew.
He added: “I look after my own children the same way she looked after me.
“She would have adored my girls. And she was so fit, she would have still been here today. I’ve no doubts about that.”
The original news article for this from The Mirror is located here.