Fresh mystery surrounded the cause of the Bradford stadium fire last night after a supporter at the centre of the initial investigation denied that he was witness to a dropped cigarette causing the inferno which killed 56 people, 30 years ago this week.
Leslie Brownlie, an expatriate Briton visiting Bradford from Australia, was central to the Popplewell Inquiry into the 1985 disaster. He featured in national newspaper coverage of the opening day of the inquiry, amid suggestions that he was the first to feel heat beneath his feet as the fire took hold. But after claims by a retired West Yorkshire detective this week that Brownlie’s uncle, Eric Bennett, dropped a cigarette that started the fire, the 80-year-old insisted that neither he nor his relative had any involvement in sparking the blaze.
Brownlie, 80, who lives in Adelaide, South Australia, was one of six supporters whose testimony was central to the inquiry into the disaster. In a BBC documentary, retired detective Raymond Falconer has suggested that Bennett – also an expatriate Briton, who died 12 years ago – was “quite unequivocal” about dropping a cigarette.
But Brownlie told the Daily Telegraph yesterday: “I don’t think he [Bennett] ever thought he was responsible. The man is dead and can’t defend himself. I am bloody annoyed about this report.” Asked if he thought there was any chance that Bennett’s cigarette had started the fire, Brownlie said: “No. None at all. He wouldn’t have dropped a cigarette.”
The significance of Falconer’s contribution to the initial investigation is actually unclear, since he was not considered significant enough to be called to testify to the inquiry. Brownlie said on the first day of the inquiry that he had felt heat under his seat and thought, “Hell, it’s warm down there.” He tried to douse what he thought were flames with his coffee but failed. His evidence came after an introductory address in which the QC to the inquiry, Andrew Collins, declared that a lit cigarette or match was the cause and then called witnesses to help examine that theory. Witnesses would only be called “if they can add something [new],“ Collins said.
Another of the six supporters, Czeslaw Pachela, who was sitting in the same area as Brownlie and Bennett, dismissed the idea that a match or cigarette had been the cause, when he testified on day two of the inquiry.
The Independent reported last week that the Department of the Environment’s Fire Research Station (FRS) was engaged in a frantic four-week attempt to produce a report into the causes of the disaster which it later admitted could have been more thorough. There is no evidence in the National Archives of any attempt by the West Yorkshire force to rule out arson as a cause. Neither is there evidence of police investigations into the background of the then Bradford chairman Stafford Heginbotham, also now dead, despite eight other fires at businesses owned by or associated with him.