The fire at Sheffield's Hillsborough stadium still reaches the news but two other stadium fires donít: one at Bradfordís Valley Parade stadium in 1985 and the one at Glasgow's Ibrox Stadium in 1971. Here I am at the first one. I'd been visiting cemeteries in Bradford and drove home via the stadium to have a stroll around. As it was Sunday teatime the area was quiet and almost deserted. I expected to find a huge car park acting as a moat around the stadium but it was mostly terraced houses and light industry. I looped the stadium and found a place where I could shove the camera through a gauze fence and get a photograph of the pitch itself.
It was here on Saturday 11th May 1985 that Bradford City were playing Lincoln City. Edging the turf was a stand built in 1911 with a wooden roof (it was going to be replaced after the football season.) There had been warnings about the banks of built-up litter in the cavity below the seats but this was nothing new. You never think anything tragic will happen do you?
One small flame ruined the stand and lives. The match was being recorded by Yorkshire Television for their football show The Big Match so the inferno was caught on film. How did it start? Sometime in the first half a man tossed a spent cigarette on the floor and scuffed it out with this foot. It hadnít gone out though and it slipped through a hole in the floorboard. The man noticed a plume of smoke at his feet and poured his coffee through the hole, as did his son. When a thicker plumb of smoke appeared he went to get a steward. It was too late and by the time he returned the fire had taken hold of the thick carpet of litter below.
TV commentator John Helm remarked on a small glow of a fire at 3:40pm but thought little of it - fans often set off firecrackers. Spectators above the fire felt their feet getting oddly warm. One saw flames and went to fetch a fire extinguisher but found none. Flames appeared and orange fire below the seats seemed to be sprinting. Spectators began to cascade over the wall separating the stand from the pitch and the linesman informed the referee to stop the game. The stand's wooden roof was covered in flammable bituminous felt and was soon aflame. Timbers and molten materials fell into the crowd and the fire spread under a seemingly conspiring wind. In four minutes the entire stand was aflame with fire and screams. The fire brigade were called and police started to evacuate the building. A mass panic like something from a horror film erupted. Lucky spectators ran down onto the pitch and unlucky ones ran up to the back of the stand. They found themselves trapped and tried to break down locked exit doors. Many were burnt to death at the turnstiles gates which were always locked once a game had started. Some people searched for fire extinguishers in the stand's passageway but found nothing (they'd been removed due to a fear of them being vandalised) and they died of smoke inhalation.
Even though the fire brigade arrived quickly they couldn't tackle the fire immediately. Fire and smoke had trapped spectators and they needed rescuing before the fire could be doused. Those who escaped were taken out of the ground to neighbouring homes and a pub. They were surprised to see World of Sport transmitting live pictures from the stadium. People joined a queue for a telephone to ring their families.
In total 56 spectators died mostly from smoke inhalation including 3 who tried to escape through the toilets, 27 by ďKĒ exit and 6 to 9 at the rear centre of the stand. Some had tried to crawl under the turnstiles but had been crushed in the mayhem. One man ran onto the pitch on fire from head to foot but died in hospital. About 265 supporters were injured. The fire brigade found many people had died still sitting upright in their seats covered by a tarpaulin that had fallen from the roof. Police worked until 4am the next day clearing the bodies.
In 1985 the fire was the worst sporting tragedy of its kind in England but the death toll could have been higher. Thankfully there was no perimeter fence which meant people could run onto the pitch. There many acts of bravery and later on 50 people received police awards or commendations for individual heroics. Even today Bradford City continues to fund the Burns Unit charity at the University of Bradford. The fire made global news and an appeal brought in £3.5 million (about £10.5 million today). Afterwards there was a banning of new wooden grandstands at all UK sports grounds, closure of many existing wooden stands deemed unsafe and the banning of smoking in other wooden stands.
As I walked around I thought, ďAll those deaths from a casually thrown fag end." When you go to a football match you expect to come home don't you? I used up the last of the hot water in the flask having a coffee and a Wispa bar, did a salute and got on the M62 for home.