This post is a bit off-subject, but today is the 30th anniversary of the Bradford City fire disaster. On a bright, sunny May day in 1985, thousands descended on Valley Parade to celebrate that rarest of events – a Bradford City Championship winning season. What happened next is etched into the minds of any Bradfordian (or Lincoln folk, for that matter) as triumph turned to disaster in four frantic minutes; the main stand burning down as half-time approached, killing 56 people.
I was one of the fortunate ones. Aged 12, I escaped unharmed with my 7 year old brother, Jeremy, thanks entirely to our quick thinking Dad. I lost no family members or close friends. Only the death of a boy from the year below me at school, Adrian Wright (11), one of our playtime football crowd, finally brought the trauma of the event home to roost.
There was a time when the anniversary would fill me with dread. However, having not lived in Bradford for the best part of 20 years now, I am no longer surrounded by the build-up to the date, and have simply decided that the best way to honour those poor relatives left behind is to say a little prayer for them and then get on with my day as positively as possible.
This year has felt a little different though. Perhaps it is because where I live, in Wigan, only people of a certain age even remember the event. To most here, even football fans, it is one of those events that people can sort of recall, but don’t know anything about. Maybe it is the regulation photos banded about in the press, which look ever more grainy and ‘from-another-era’ with each passing year. I just feel that, this year more than ever, the disaster is being referred to as much as a historical event as an emotional one.
Personally, I choose not to watch any TV programmes on the subject, nor to read too much on the subject either. Nothing against any of them, I just find forgetting is much easier to deal with than remembering. It also opens up the opportunity to see or read opinions you may not agree with. But seeing one or two things on the news and internet building up to today made me realise that, although all these people were in the same football ground at the same time, everyone’s experiences were different.
It must be something like 20 years since I have spoken about my memories of that fateful day. I have thought long and hard about whether this is the forum or the time to do so. But I have chosen to write it today so that my story is recorded forever in history; perhaps for my children to read in future years. But mostly because, as the disaster itself proves, you never know when you may no longer be around to tell the story yourself.
Preface – Please do not read if you think the content may cause upset. This certainly is not the intention. Hopefully my reasoning is provided above. I have included times-of-day; not as a perfectly accurate scientific record, but hopefully to convey the timescale of what took place to those who are unaware. I apologise for any factual inaccuracies that may be contained; these are my honest memories of a childhood event 30 years ago written on a whim – no research has taken place.
Saturday 11th May, 1985.
“Dad, please can we go to the match?”
“If you finish your French homework, I’ll think about it.”
“But it’s going to sell out!”
“Well you’d better work quicker then!”
Enough said. I loathed languages at school, dropped the lot. Much to my disgust nowadays, as I spend every winter skiing in countries where they speak the languages I chose not to learn. But I was way more enthusiastic that Saturday morning. Bradford City had only gone and won the league. Even this most sport-allergic of towns had burst with civic pride as, starved of success for generations, the football team had finally achieved something. Today was the last day of the season and City were to be presented with the trophy before the match. It seemed that all my mates from school were going. Now all I had to do was persuade Dad to take me.
Homework was rapidly completed, followed by another round of pestering. Eventually, Dad began to cave in, ringing friends to see if they wanted tickets too. Phone calls to the club began, (no internet booking, folks – this technology free age will be a running theme,) before he finally managed to snare five of the last remaining tickets for our party of Dad and Jack (adults), myself aged 12, one of my three younger brothers Jeremy (7), and Jack’s son, Simon (8).
For only the second time that season, (and the third time ever,) I was going to the match.
It is one of life’s great anomalies that I can remember so vividly the events and feelings of the day, when I can barely remember what I did last week. But the atmosphere and excitement I felt walking down Valley Parade that day towards the ground was incredible. The place was buzzing. It was a bright, sunny day and everyone was early. Partly because, in those days before all-seater stadia, you had to be there early to ‘get your spot’, but on this day it was because the Division 3 trophy (Division 1 in modern football currency) was to be presented the best part of an hour before kick-off. The ‘stadium’ was (still is) built into a steep hillside meaning that, in those days, as you walked down the road you were afforded delicious little sneak previews through the turnstiles of the hallowed-green playing surface below you. I distinctly remember the high-pitched tinkling of the majorette troupe instruments echoing up the road – a noise I now forever associate with this day. (Oh, the joys of old-fashioned pre-match entertainment! It sounds dreadful, but I assure you it was much more enjoyable than having terrible pop music blasted into your ears by a deafening modern PA system! ‘Let Me Entertain You’ by Robbie, anyone? ‘We are the Champions’ perhaps? Apologies, I digress.)
We entered the ground. We were to be sitting in the main stand. I wanted to go on the Kop, but Dad said it would be too busy. He had taken me on the Kop once before, the day City were promoted from Division 4 by drawing 2-2 with Bournemouth in 1982. Bobby Campbell scored in the last-minute that day, sparking a joyous pitch invasion which I joined in with. Mum was not impressed when she saw me on TV that night! First football match, first involvement in hooliganism! I suspected Mum had played a part on insisting we were not on the Kop this time!
Because we had bought our tickets so late they weren’t great seats. We were in ‘G’ block, the very last block at one end of the stand. I liked it though because it was the Kop end of the ground and I could look over and see some of my friends at the bottom of the huge terrace, draped over the wire fences which were the norm at football grounds back then. City completed a lap of honour with the trophy to rapturous applause and, as the team approached the Kop, my friends Peter (who I still ski with today) and Andrew even managed to sneak onto the pitch as the players approached to shake hands!
Bobby Campbell, goalscoring hero, was still in the team and still scoring goals at hero rate. Peter Jackson, the club captain proudly holding the trophy aloft, was my other favourite player, mostly because he scored the City goal in a 1-1 draw with Rotherham earlier in the season – the other match we had been to. Ironically, we bought tickets at the last-minute for that game too and found ourselves in ‘A’ block at the Bradford end of the main stand. Jackson scored at that end and I thought it was the most exciting thing I had ever seen! Dad, however, said it was a rubbish game and we weren’t going again! (He was still a Park Ave fan at heart. That’s Bradford Park Avenue. Long story. Look them up.) Regular supporters though, loved young guns John Hendrie and Stuart McCall, of whom great things were destined.
And after the festivities, the match. To say it was anticlimactic would be an understatement. No-one had come for the match. It appeared that the players hadn’t come for the match! It was just something to do before the end of season party. Lincoln City were the opposition but there was nothing to play for. City were champions, Lincoln were safe from relegation. It is one of fate’s cruel twists that a fixture which would usually (in those days) have been played in-front of perhaps a 5000 crowd was, on this day of celebration, being played in-front of well over double that number.
A policeman comes down the central gangway of ‘G’ block. He’s been alerted to something by someone and is looking beneath his feet. The stand is an old wooden structure. The flooring is the old ‘railway-sleeper’ style wooden beams. People around us also begin to look down and, sure enough, between the beams underneath our feet, small flickers of orange flame can be seen.
Another policeman comes down the aisle and asks the supporters on the left hand side of the aisle to go and wait on the concourse at the back of the stand while they sort it out. Being on a hill, the pitch can still be seen from there. Fortunately, we are sat on the right of the aisle. A football playing pal of our friends, Paul, is amongst the left-siders and he and his Dad give us a cheery wave and a ‘We’re going to miss the rest of the half!’ shrug as they make their way up the stairs. Somehow, they both survived the next few minutes, but I dread to think how many of the others did not.
The flickers of flame have not yet reached the wooden beams, but are increasingly visible through the gaps. You can smell it now too. But it is entirely invisible unless you are stood directly above it. The match goes on. The police are back, and now they want our section of ‘G’ block to go to the back of the stand too. I’m up and off straight away, doing as I’m told. Dad stops me though. He waits back a moment while the police move away.
“Come on, Dad!” I implore.
“No. If we’re moving, we’re going this way.”
Instead of moving upwards towards the back of the stand, Dad and Jack lift myself, Jez and Simon forward, over the retaining wall that separates the upper seating from the lower seating.
I have replayed that moment over and over in my mind a million times in the last 30 years. I think it is no exaggeration at all to say that, with that simple decision, Dad saved our lives.
We are now stood with our back to a five or six-foot wall. The match is still in progress. Dad can see over the wall, I cannot. At that very moment the ball finally falls to City hero Bobby Campbell, in the box in-front of the Kop. He blasts the ball so far over the bar it nearly clears the entire terrace. The whole ground groans.
Dad looks over the wall again. “I think it’s taking hold,” he says of the fire. We begin to walk along the centre of the stand, moving in-front of ‘F’ and then ‘E’ block before stopping again to watch the match.
“Sit down!” shout a couple of irate fans whose view we are now blocking. The match is still in progress. Looking to our left though, smoke is now clearly visible and flames can be seen above the floorboards. Everything is wooden. Everything is old. Very old. The referee must see this too and he consults with a linesman and stops the game, much to the dismay of most of the ground, who are totally unaware of why he has done so. The fire looks so inconsequential. Just put it out. The fans in the paddock right next to ‘G’ block sing of an inventive way in which the fire should be doused, such is the lack of urgency!
Dad, however, was watching over the wall all along, and knows the fire is anything but inconsequential. We move along further, making our way towards the halfway line, still in the middle of the stand.
By the time we reach half-way, which can only have taken a few seconds, the next look over our shoulders changes everything. The end of stand where we were seated moments ago is now full of smoke. Flames leap out of the smoke like a wild beast released from a cage. Moments ago, people were telling us off for blocking their view – now those same people are beginning to panic and head for the pitch.
I feel like we are frozen to the spot.
“Dad, can we go on the pitch now?”
“I think we better had.”
(nb. I have rarely spoken about this with anyone, never mind Dad. We did talk about it once though, and he says this conversation definitely didn’t happen. I remember it vividly, but it is entirely possible that this conversation was going on in my head and not with Dad.)
We are now heading down the stairs as quickly as we can between the seats. Panic is not a sufficient word. Every glance to the left looks worse than before – and you couldn’t help but look. Flames are up to the roof and, unbeknown to anyone, the roof is tar coated. I believe it has been timed at less than 30 seconds for the fire, once it lit the roof, to travel down the entire length of the stand. This made those of us in ‘G’ block the lucky ones, as we had some prior warning. At the Bradford end of the stand, they were watching football one minute and running for their very lives the next.
I was too young to do anything other than try to escape, although I do remember trying to make sure Jez was in-front of me, (this may also be imagination on my part.) I am always full of admiration for people who perform heroic deeds in these situations now because I am pretty certain that, in the same situation, I wouldn’t be brave enough to help anyone other than family members. I remember reaching the front of the seated area and looking to my left again. It was coming. We all knew it. The roar of the fire was only muted by the shouts and screams of the people. I still hear that roaring noise every bonfire I attend. I still see it. I still smell it. When a bonfire warms my face, I think of the heat on the back of my head.
The front of the stand was a mass of people. Our family-collective-minds have played a trick on our memories at this point, as none-of-us remember the paddock area, (an area of standing a few steps deep between the seating and the pitch.) Apparently, many of the victims were older people unable to scale the wall from the paddock to the pitch. None of us remember the paddock at all; I just remember Dad launching us over the wall from the seating onto the pitch. Jez’s trainer came off mid-flight and I managed to catch it as we ran past. The roof had clearly caught light behind us by this point; the heat was unbearable, even when running away. I didn’t look back to see if Dad was coming, I could hear him right behind us, imploring us to keep running.
Less than four minutes was all it took. Most people had much less warning than that. The pitch was the only real source of emergency exit. There were emergency gates at the back of the stand, but these were locked to stop hooligans getting in, not for actual emergencies. Any people sent to the back of the stand, or being unlucky enough to be caught there, could only escape by crawling under the old-fashioned waist-high turnstiles. The hell of waiting your turn for that can only be imagined.
Even a football pitch width away, the heat was incredible. I gripped one of Dad’s hands, Jez the other. Goodness only knows where Jack and Simon were.
“Don’t look down.” Dad kept repeating to us, over and over. People were spread around the floor in various states of injury and distress but, for the second time that day, I am grateful for doing as Dad said. I didn’t look down.
An old man emerged from the stand ablaze, a brave policeman went to his aid. People were screaming for loved ones or screaming for help. I just looked up at the sky, now filled with a huge black cloud.
To properly ascertain the panic and lack of clarity of the situation, it is crucial at this point to remember there were no mobile phones, no Twitter, no Facebook, no 24 hour news channels; nothing.
Mum was shopping in town. I assume my other brothers, Chris (10) and Simon (4) were with her, but I don’t know. What I do know is Mum heard the fire engine sirens roaring through town. Lots of them. She could see the huge cloud of smoke and she instinctively knew where it was coming from. No phones remember. Just a crowd of people gathering around a shop front of Dixon’s or some other such electrical goods store. The ITV sports programme (was it called World of Sport?) had cut live to Valley Parade and Mum had her worst fears confirmed. It was Valley Parade. She dashed for home to get by the phone. That must have been an equally long, traumatic afternoon.
I actually have no idea how long we were on the pitch. I just remember walking around, holding Dad’s hand, looking upwards. Eventually the stairwell at the Bradford End of the ground was opened and, maybe an hour later (I’m not certain) we made our way out of the ground. I think some felt relief that it appeared everyone had got out, all-be-it with injuries. I also know that some, Dad included, suspected there was no way that could possibly be true.
We walked up Holywell Ash Lane. The local Asian community were amazing. Doors were open to all. The players from both teams were lined up the street, still in kit, wrapped in blankets from the locals, with their families – if they were fortunate enough to be reunited yet.
We climbed up to Manningham Lane and bumped into one of my best friends from school, Simon. It was only at this point did I realise that my hand was still glued to my Dad’s – not cool for a 12 year-old! Simon had been in the Bradford End but had still become separated from his cousin. Although that stand had not caught fire, the heat was so intense that they still had to escape onto the pitch.
Only when we got back to the car did any sense of relief begin to drip in. Dad worked for British Telecom at the time and his company car had an amazing gadget – wait for it – a car phone! This made Dad’s car something of a spaceship to my friends but on this occasion it was the greatest piece of kit ever, allowing us to ring round family and let them know we were safe.
The only thing I cannot remember at all is when and how we found out that Jack and Simon, our match companions, were safe. But safe they were.
I could write at length about how life changed in the aftermath. At first I couldn’t comprehend the enormity of what had happened and got a well deserved telling-off from Mum for ‘showing-off’ about being there. I think the Monday morning news at school changed that. (Remember, no phones or internet – the first I knew of Adrian was walking onto the school playground that morning.) I became very agitated in large crowds and, if I went to watch rugby with Dad, I always had to go and stand right at the front so I could get out if anything ‘happened’. I had an awesome bedroom upstairs in the converted loft at the time, but found it difficult to sleep up there so Mum and Dad swapped my bedroom for the newly built ground floor office. Over time these things ease, but I still need to be able to see an escape route wherever I am to this day.
The main thing I learned though, was to try and enjoy every minute of life. Try to spend as little time doing things you dislike and as much time as possible doing things you like. Even better if you can do those things with people you love.
Ironically, one of the things to fall by the wayside was football. I was City mad for a good decade or so, going to the matches with a life-long friend who, ironically, was sat practically right next to me in the main stand 30 years ago today. We didn’t know each other at the time, but we instantly recognised each other when we met a year or so later at high school.
Nowadays I would rather spend my time in the park with the girls, visiting family or running a race somewhere, which I suppose does tenuously bring me back to a running theme.
Love life. And do it now.