How death and destruction overtook a title celebration
IT WAS GOING TO BE a good day. Optimism seeped once more from the sooty black mills and the streets throbbed with success. Peter Jackson parked his car and smiled. He passed the steel girders that were lying on the floor, waiting for the workmen to arrive in two days’ time to start upgrading the archaic main stand, and went to the dressing-room. The Bradford-born captain kept grinning.
This was Bradford City on the verge of rebirth. Jackson looked around the room in the bowels of Valley Parade. There was Bobby Campbell, the scruffy, unshaven striker with the penchant for cigarettes and alcohol, and Stuart McCall, the former Bradford schoolboy on the cusp of a glittering career. Under the canny tutelage of Trevor Cherry and Terry Yorath, the former Leeds United duo, the club had travelled from receivership to the old third division title. And so, on May 11, 1985, just before kick-off against Lincoln City, Jackson, the local hero, picked up the championship trophy and looked to the players’ balcony where his wife, Alison, held Charlotte, just 18 months old, in her arms. Nothing would ever be the same again.
It was a dull game, but most of the 11,076 were just happy to have something to shout about. Bradford had suffered as a community, the inertia of its industry, the trauma of the Yorkshire Ripper years and the mediocrity of its football. Now things were on the up. Then, after 40 minutes, a policeman walked up to Yorath and asked where the nearest tap was.
The Deputy Lord Mayor, Bill Nunn, had stayed in his seat in the main stand in the hope that Bradford might score before half-time. Bored delegates from twin towns in Germany, France and Belgium had sloped off for a cup of tea. To his left, Nunn noticed a puff of grey smoke near the back. “I thought it was a smoke bomb,” he said. But then he saw the fire that grew from a flicker to a flare to an inferno within four minutes. It started in G block and blazed through the alphabet, the tar felt roof a riot of white heat, the rubbish beneath the stand turning it into a funeral pyre.
“The first I noticed was when people started to spill on to the pitch,” Jackson recalled. “It was a proud day because I was the first captain to lift a cup for years and being a Bradford man made it more special still. But then we realised something was very badly wrong.”
As more people hurdled the wall fronting the main stand, Don Shaw, the referee, stopped play and a tragedy supplanted the celebration. Yorath ran upstairs to his office where his son, Daniel, used to go for half-time sweets. He tried to spread the word but the fire was spreading quicker. He smashed a window in the players’ lounge and leapt to safety. Jackson found his wife and child and escaped, while Nunn got the burgomaster of Hamm out by a rear door. They did not realise how fortunate they were. Some failed to glean the reality from the chaos. A section of supporters sang chants, while others threw missiles at John Helm, the television commentator from Bradford who found himself in the position of having to describe a worsening scene of death and destruction.
PC Glynn Leesing knew the gravity of the horror as he watched people condemn themselves with split decisions. In those few moments available for debating an escape, many decided to leave the same way they had arrived. Leesing knew most of those gates were locked. “Exit from the stand would have been virtually impossible,” he said. “I tried to get people out of the stadium via the pitch, but they would not listen. By this time I had to walk on my hands and knees, the smoke was so thick.”
He even pulled the tights off a woman in an attempt to claw her back. “My plastic coat had melted and my head and hair had started to burn,” he said. He saw a pensioner pulling an elderly woman over the wall and helped them. Then the roof fell down and the next thing he remembered was coming to in the back of an ambulance.
The first fire engine arrived from Nelson Street, in the city centre, in around four minutes, but even that was too late. Footballers were reduced to the rank and file, ordinary men with a common concern. John Hawley, the former Arsenal striker, yanked a man over the wall to safety, ignoring the proximity of his own nylon shirt to the fire. With his club blazer pulled over his sweat-soaked kit, McCall drove to the Bradford Royal Infirmary, looking for his father, Andy, who had been badly hurt. He was told the more severely burnt had been taken to Pinderfields Hospital, in Wakefield.
The 15-mile drive took an eternity. Andy McCall loved football. He had played alongside Stanley Matthews in the great Blackpool side and now loved watching his son perform. When McCall and his brother, Les, walked into the burns unit, they could barely recognise their father through the bandages and ointment. Yet McCall would reflect that he was one of the lucky ones. A former girlfriend of Don Goodman, who had asked him for tickets, perished
In total, 56 people would die in the Bradford fire and another 250 were injured. As the smoke turned the summer sky a pitch black, the players of both teams assembled in the nearby Belle Vue pub for a roll call. They watched the mounted television screen in staggered silence as Helm told the story of what was happening 100 yards away. “They kept saying there might be two or three killed,” Jackson said. “But later, when it was over, we went back to the ground to get some belongings and I looked out and saw the body bags piled up. I knew it was far worse. It was the most horrible sight.”
Over the next few weeks, stories of immense heroism emerged, while the possible cause of the disaster was revealed to be a cigarette stubbed out in a polystyrene cup. The old wooden stand, a relic from an era ambivalent about crowd safety, played its part, too. This was an age when cowsheds were well-named and football fans died as cattle in Bradford and, a few weeks later, in Belgium. The aftermath would leave Jackson and his peers anomadic team, blighted by their past but bonded by the shared pain of attending the funerals of the dead. The new Valley Parade stadium would come 19 months too late. The person who dropped the killer cigarette has never been named, although some in West Yorkshire say they know.
Twenty years on, the memories are still raw and, on Wednesday, Jackson, now the Huddersfield Town manager, will recall spending most of May 11, 1985, in hospital, trying to comfort the injured and their families. Eventually, he got home at 10.30pm and sat on the sofa in his shirt, shorts and socks, arms clamped around his wife, toddler on his knee. “You never get over it,” he said.
ON MAY 11, 1985, Bradford City were crowned champions of the old third division before their league game against Lincoln City.
AT 3.40pm, with the score 0-0, a fire broke out in G block at the back
of the main stand. The match was halted as fans ran on to the pitch.
BY 3.44pm, the entire stand was ablaze and the first fire engine arrived from the city centre. Fifty-six people died in the fire, including two Lincoln fans, and more than 250 were injured. Surgeons and burns experts were called in from hospitals around the North. The last of the bodies was removed from Valley Parade at 6am on May 12. The first to be identified was Sam Firth, the 86-year-old former club chairman.
A SEVEN-DAY hearing into the fire was held at Bradford City Hall in
June, 1985, with Oliver Popplewell, the High Court judge, officiating.
It led to improvements in ground safety.
TWENTY-TWO supporters received bravery awards and a memorial, donated by the people of Hamm, Bradford’s twin town in Germany, was erected outside the city hall