Martin Fletcher’s story: “Oh my God! They’re locked! They’re locked!”

The following is reproduced here from The Guardian and is an extract from Martin Fletcher’s book ‘The 56 – The story of the Bradford City Fire’. You can read the original article here and purchase Martin’s book here.

9k=We clicked through the old turnstiles, turned left and walked down the narrow rear corridor to G Block, at the far end of the stand. I asked Uncle Peter if I could have my ticket as a souvenir.

“Can I keep them for now, Martin? In case we need them later. You can have all five after the game. Deal?”

“Deal!” I told him, excited by the prospect of having five instead of one.

Once we’d found our seats – in row O, three rows from the back, in the top left-hand corner of the stand as you looked at the pitch. A brass band full of teenagers in blue uniforms marched round the pitch. The trophy presentation came five minutes early, made in front of A Block, at the opposite clubhouse end of the stand. We all stood in proud salute, loudly applauding and cheering before the players disappeared into the clubhouse changing rooms.

We should have all left then – the title secured, Lincoln safe from relegation, this was always destined to be a dead rubber of a match.

That day Andrew sat on the end of our row, close to the spiked metal railings separating us from the steep paddock terrace to our left. I was to his right, Dad to mine; Uncle Peter and Grandad in the seats nearest to the aisle. I remember just in front of us that day, there were two good-looking girls about our age, with their younger brother. That prompted a bit of nudge-nudge, wink-wink between Andrew and me. Aged 12 and 11, though, quite what we were going to do about it, I don’t know.

Keen to beat the half-time rush down the always-congested rear corridor, I headed to the halfway-line huts that housed the toilets. Then, wanting to see the girl in the old snack bar where we used to sit, I headed not to the nearest snack bar, but to the far one, where a uniformed off-duty fireman was being served.

When I reached G Block, I overheard an old man talking to a police officer by the stairwell. “I can smell something burning under my seat, but I just can’t put my finger on it,” he said. Although his words were unusual enough to echo in my ears, I walked on. As I sat back down, I remember checking the time on the clock in the corner of the Midland Road terrace and Bradford End. It was 3.40pm.

I was just about to open my cola when the tiniest trail of mysterious white smoke began to rise from the front of our seating section. “What’s that?” one supporter asked. Nobody had any idea, and bafflement grew as the smoke did.

“Piss on it, piss on it, piss on it!” those on the paddock on our left started to chant. “What a pity I’ve just been – I could have put that out!” I announced, to wry smiles all round.

Over the next minute or so the small white cloud of smoke slowly expanded.

“Bradford’s burning, fetch the engines … fire fire, fire fire. Bradford’s burning …” sang the paddock.

We could merely watch and wait as the smoke grew. Watch, as the police ordered those on the front rows of this rear seating section up the narrow stairwell, into the one empty area of the packed stand – the narrow rear corridor I’d just strolled down – and wait, as the nine rows in this section started to slowly empty backwards.

Walking back up the corridor with my can of Coke the two pretty girls from the row in front were walking towards me, trying to deal with their brother, who was zigzagging his way down the tight passageway. They smiled as I stood in a turnstile to let them pass.

It was the last moment of normality I can remember.

“So, where should we go, John?” asked Uncle Peter. “Same place the police want everyone else, Peter: the corridor. Let them do their jobs and once they’ve cleared us all out, I’m sure they’ll sort that out,” Dad said, pointing to the smoke. “Where else can we go?”

“True,” Uncle Peter agreed, as the G Block stairwell ended at a wall halfway down the stand. Dad and Uncle Peter agreed that it was a “wait-in-the-back-of-the-stand job”.

The police cue was clear: yes, there was a problem, but it was manageable, and the best we could do to help them manage it was to clear out. Any attempt to motion us forwards would have simply recongested the area they’d just cleared. And there was no immediate way forwards through this obstacle course of a stand when it was empty, let alone full.

So there was only one place to go: backwards. Not that this alarmed anybody unduly: at this point, nobody really expected to have to leave the stand. We half-anticipated a wait in the corridor, before returning to our seats once the fire had been put out. So one man casually ate a pie as he headed back, and a photographer in the next section did not even consider the trail of smoke noteworthy enough to photograph.

The smoke had been rising for two minutes now. It was the contrast of the amber flames against a crack in the claret-painted wooden enclosure wall that hit me. There was a wild and unrestrained movement in their large dancing tips that suggested matters were more serious than anyone had anticipated.

“Bloody hell!” I exclaimed. “Language!” Dad immediately chided me with a clipped ear. Annoyed at being told off, I turned to my uncle. “What’s that there, Uncle Peter?” I asked, pointing to the dancing flames.

“John. Get the bloody kids out of here!” he immediately told my Dad.

“Andrew, go with Martin,” said Dad, nodding along the row of vacated bench seats, everyone now stood up, slowly filtering towards the stairwell aisle. “I’ll go with Uncle Peter and help Granddad.”

“No,” Andrew told him, clearly concerned by the suggestion. So Dad turned to me. “Martin, you go by yourself, then. We’ll follow, but if we get lost go to the car and wait. OK?”

Ordinarily I might well have refused, like Andrew, but, embarrassed by the display of public discipline and angered at having been, to my 12-year-old-mind, unfairly reprimanded, I nodded and told him, “OK”.

So I jumped on to our now empty row of wooden bench seats, and ran to the end of the plank, past everyone who was filing out. I turned back to look hesitatingly at my family at the end of the slowly emptying queue. They were starting to move a bit more quickly, but rather than tell me to wait, as I’d secretly hoped he might, Dad shouted in encouragement: “Go on, Martin. We’re following.” So, nodding, I simply jumped from our row on to the row behind, then sneaked through the congestion round the stairwell entry into the rear corridor of the stand, losing sight of them.

The game wasn’t stopped until the flames had emerged in the stand, three minutes after the smoke had started rising. By then I’d been in the corridor for about 30 seconds. Accustomed to its tight conditions and restricted movement I was not overly worried to find my progress halted after a few yards. There was a solid wall of stationary people ahead of me. I’d assumed, as always, it would ease. But the pressure started to tighten from behind as more and more people entered the corridor.

By the time the game was stopped the whole of our rear section of G Block was in the corridor.

“No, no. Leave me alone. I’m not going, I’m not going,” one scared woman in the entrance to the G Block stairwell screamed at a police officer, who demanded she go back into the stand. She was blocking the entrance to the stand, so he tried to physically drag her, but gave up.

Unable to move and with the echo of these screams I had the first panicky thought: “We are trapped.”

Too short to see over the stand partition wall, I was trapped between strangers all taller than me. Where were the police? There seemed to be no effort to alleviate this pressure by marshalling people along the corridor. With each passing second I wanted out.

“Dad … Dad … Dad!” I eventually shouted, as I began to hit the wall of the stand with my right fist, the slapping breaking the eerie calm in the otherwise silent corridor.

“Martin, Martin. Calm down, calm down. I’m here, just turn around, son. Just turn around and talk to me, I’m here.” Dad was in the corridor too and the pressure had slackened enough that I could turn to look up and over various pairs of heads back to him. I thought I could make out Andrew’s head in front of him and with Grandad in front of Uncle Peter on his left.

“I want to come back, Dad. I want to come back,” I told him, as I fought back tears. “I know, son. I know, but not now, later. It’s not possible right now, OK?”

“I know, I know, Dad,” I replied, looking at the dozen or so sad, silent, concerned faces that separated us. By this point the fire behind us would have been a few rows deep, a few seats wide.

“Listen to me. Everything’s going to be OK, as long as we all stay calm and don’t panic. OK? You can do that for me, can’t you?”

“But Dad …” I started to say, but broke off as I looked back to watch a narrow channel of white smoke start to funnel through the double-pitched roof above. In seconds all the natural light seemed to drain from the corridor; the smoke was now rapidly funnelling down the roof.

“I know, son. But look at me, look only at me. Deep breaths, son; deep breaths. With me, in … out … in … out. Good, now listen to me …” and with my breathing now regulated by Dad’s rhythm, as I got large lungfuls of clear air, I nodded.

“I need you to stay calm for me, Martin. If we all stay calm then there’s nothing to worry about, OK? I promise you. I need you to be brave. You can do that for me, can’t you son? I know you can. Just remember deep breaths, in … out … in … out … in … out.”

I kept doing that, getting much calmer with each passing breath. “Look, Martin. Don’t worry. It’s OK. Everything’s going to be OK – OK?” It was a promise. He’d never lied to me. He was the man who had always made everything OK, all my life, until then.

Nobody corrected Dad’s impressions, everybody waited calmly in silence, united in some kind of conscious desire not to panic, silently praying the fire would stay at bay. Then, it seemed our patience had at last paid off. The gridlock cleared quickly and inexplicably. Having been unable to advance a yard in 90 seconds, we now briskly walked 10 yards over the next few seconds.

I couldn’t see over the partition wall, but I knew we were no further than the edge of the penalty box, with the nearest exit just past the halfway line. Then those further ahead of me suddenly broke into a gallop, starting to run down the unfathomably emptying corridor ahead of them. I ignored this open space and held back, following those immediately ahead of me who spread out into a recess on our right, the first of the turnstile huts that squatted on South Parade. I stood directly in front of the waist-high metal turnstile and thought its sanctuary might give me a chance to rejoin my family. I glanced at the turnstile door. Bolts secured the top and bottom of this door, and padlocks secured these bolts.

“Oh my God! They’re locked! They’re locked!” the man who’d vaulted the turnstile ahead of me shouted as he began to desperately beat his fists on the claret turnstile door. Two or three others had jumped over the other turnstiles and were doing the same.

I stood there calmly, remembering Dad’s instructions from seconds before, taking a deep breath in, a deep breath out, another one in – then in an instant a blackness fell. I thought the lights had failed, but the darkness fell with such speed – it was too black, there was nothing, not even the daylight that should have shone through the turnstile door from the street behind.

Then … silence. Seconds earlier I had been braced for the pressure that I’d assumed would follow, as more bodies rammed me towards the turnstile. But after the briefest, momentary surge, none came. There was a loud, thumping noise for a second or so, then the silence was total.