The Bradford fire: 25 years ago but the pain is still vivid

It claimed 56 lives and was one of English football's darkest hours. But out of the darkness came shafts of light
Click to follow
The Independent Football

At 11am on Tuesday, a crowd will gather in Bradford's Centenary Square to mark the anniversary of one of English football's darkest hours. It may be 25 years ago now but those who were there on 11 May 1985 will remember vividly how an afternoon of celebration turned into a night of suffering for the people of Bradford after a fire that claimed 56 lives and left more than 200 injured.

On that Saturday a quarter of a century ago, over 11,000 people packed into Valley Parade – the biggest crowd of the season – to toast an exciting Bradford City team who had ended a 48-year exile from the old Second Division. But before long, tragedy struck.

At 3.40pm, with half-time approaching in the game against Lincoln City, a fire started in Block G in the corner of the 77-year-old main stand. It was almost certainly caused by a discarded cigarette or match in a polystyrene cup which dropped through wooden flooring and ignited rubbish that had accumulated over the years. Within minutes, the stand was ablaze. The then Bradford captain, Peter Jackson, says: "I always thought people had time to get out of fires but they didn't. It happened in four or five minutes, from this puff of smoke to this major inferno."

It is ironic to note the back-page headline in the local Telegraph & Argus newspaper that fateful day: "City stand work starts on Monday." The club had been warned that the stand represented a risk and there were sheets of steel lined up outside to cover the old wooden roof.

The fire claimed old and young alike, most of the fatalities occurring at the rear of the stand where people sought escape only to find turnstiles locked. Samuel Firth, a founder of the supporters' club, was the oldest victim at 86; four 11-year-old boys the youngest. Jane Sampson, an ex-girlfriend of City forward Don Goodman, also perished, as did two Lincoln fans. The heat caused car windows to shatter in the street.

On the same day, a teenage boy was killed when Birmingham City and Leeds United fans rioted; the Heysel disaster followed 18 days later. But amid the darkness were shafts of light. An appeal effort – which included Gerry Marsden's charity version of You'll Never Walk Alone going to No 1 – raised more than £3 million for the victims. Moreover, the ensuing Popplewell Inquiry led to significant changes in ground-safety legislation, notably the banning of the construction of wooden grandstands.

Peter Jackson

The homegrown defender became the first Bradford captain to lift a trophy for 56 years before kick-off

The week before, we had won at Bolton Wanderers to clinch the championship and there was a carnival atmosphere – they presented the trophy to me on the pitch and we waved placards thanking the fans.

When the fire began, at first all we saw was some smoke and a few people climbing over the wall at the front of the stand. After the referee stopped the game, it just got worse and the fire went right along the top of the stand. Even then there were people still underneath, looking down to their left, who didn't realise what was above them.

Everybody gathered at the corner of the pitch and my first thought was to get up into the players' lounge where my wife Alison and daughter Charlotte, who was two, were watching. I got them outside but my dad and two brothers were in the main stand and it was an hour before I realised they were OK.

My brother Gerard got trapped at the back of the stand – people were coming forward on to the pitch but others were going to the back where the turnstiles and gates were shut. Gerard is 6ft 4in and it was survival of the fittest. He made it on to the pitch with my dad, who was helping Stuart McCall's father, Andy, who had been burned.

The team went to the Belle Vue pub at the top of the road and saw on the television that there might be fatalities. I still had my kit on with my club jacket on over it and I went back to get my car keys from the dressing room. When I looked on to the pitch and saw the body bags, I knew then that there were fatalities for sure. On my way home, I stopped at Bradford Royal Infirmary and went into casualty and saw hundreds of people waiting for treatment.

I was 23 years old then and we were a young Bradford team so a lot of us grew up overnight. As captain I had to co-ordinate players attending functions for the appeal. There were also hospital visits and funerals – people were sat there with major burns and all they wanted to talk about was football. It was humbling.

The next season we had to play our home games at Huddersfield, Leeds and Odsal [Bradford's rugby league ground] and we did unbelievably well to finish mid-table. The players wanted to repay the fans for what they'd been through and the spirit of the club shone through that year. Outside the city the tragedy might have been a bit forgotten with what happened at Heysel three weeks later but there was no blame connected to Bradford. If one good thing came out of it 25 years on, it is stadiums have improved no end.

John Hendrie

The Scottish winger had just completed a successful first season at Valley Parade, scoring 10 goals

When I arrived at Bradford City, it felt like the right move from day one. We had a young management team – with Trevor Cherry and Terry Yorath – and we had an upcoming side who were striving for promotion. Money wasn't a factor in those days – it was just football and camaraderie. The crowds had been getting higher as the season went on and the place was packed to the rafters for that game.

In those days there was hooliganism and people would run on to the pitch and cause problems so my initial thought when the match stopped was "here we go again". About half the team ran back to the dressing room but we were there about 30 seconds when Allan Gilliver, the groundsman, came along shouting: "Get out, everyone!" We fled through the club offices. On the street outside there were parents and grandparents shouting for their loved ones, children screaming because they'd got split up. I saw people lying on the floor with their skin peeling and others trying to help.

Eventually we got word to meet at the Belle Vue pub. It was our striker Bobby Campbell's favourite pub because that's where the strippers used to go. I remember thinking, "we're not allowed to come into here". All the families gathered there but we did not realise just how bad it was.

I went out that night with my Bradford team-mate Martin Singleton and our partners – we were just in total shock and couldn't eat. The power of the media wasn't as strong then so it was only in the next 24 hours that everything started to come out.

The wind here always blows a certain way but for a sinister reason it was blowing a different way that day. If it had been a normal wind, there'd have been no problem. It was just like a tinderbox, you've got an old wooden stand, you've got an old tarred roof, all of a sudden a strong wind like that and it's lethal.

Nobody's ever been blamed for it and nobody should be because it was an accident. I've an inclination that the police know which seat it came from but to this day they've not disclosed that, which is the right thing.

Every time I hear "Abide With Me" now, I just fill up with tears because that brings it back – it was the music which was playing at all of the funerals.

I remember going up to different places in Scotland that summer and picking up cheques because what followed was the big disaster appeal. For the next 18 months we became football's nomads. When we came back to Bradford there were two new stands. Sir Bobby Robson brought an England team to play in December 1986 and to say that was an emotional occasion was an understatement.

John Helm

The Bradford-born commentator was covering the match for Yorkshire TV and his broadcast went around the world

My commentary position was on the opposite side to the stand that burned. About five minutes before half-time, there was a throw-in right in front of what I spotted as this small glow in the stands.

I asked the director, Peter Jones, to hone a camera in and my actual words were "there appears to be a small fire in the stand". At that point, believe you me, it was a small fire. On reflection, if someone had just put their foot on it, it would have gone out. Four and a half minutes later, the stand had gone completely. It was one of the most astonishing sights and I've never been able to watch the footage again.

There was a black plume of smoke billowing hundreds of feet into the air and I became aware of the gravity when two little boys climbed up the hillside behind me and shouted: "There are two men dead, mister." I was really taken aback, even though I'd seen some horrible things on the pitch.

There was a chap with his hair on fire. One of the most awful images I have is of a man called Miles Bamford, who was there with his father. Miles was young enough to be able to clamber over the wall but had to leave his father, which must have been horrendous for him. I continued commentating for about 15 minutes, during which time I was pelted with stones by spectators who had been overcome by the emotion of it and thought we should turn our cameras off.

But the footage has been used since by all the special services – ambulance, fire and police – for training. Ironically, the local fire service had been due to play a match on the Valley Parade pitch the following afternoon.

After a quarter of an hour I was told I could stop commentating and to go down on to the pitch and do interviews. There were bodies lying around, people being covered up. Some of our cameramen were carrying people out. I was told later that the heat was 1,000 degrees. It was the most distressing day of my life.

The tragedy really pulled everybody together. There were 56 funerals. Stafford Heginbotham, who was the chairman, attended every single one. The infirmary was run off its feet. Everyone in Bradford knew someone who died or was injured badly.

The biggest thing from the Popplewell Report was that the stand should have been knocked down earlier and cleaned out. It was still maybe a one-in-a-million chance – people had been going into that stand for years and that rubbish must have been there and nothing had happened. If there is any consolation to be had, it is that it will probably never happen again.

Prof David Sharpe

Had been a consultant plastic surgeon for only five months when called to treat the burns victims

On that day I was at home with the family when I got a call from a private hospital about a chap who'd got hand burns at a football match. On the way I saw the great pall of smoke hanging over Bradford and when I saw him I heard there had been a major fire at the stadium.

The communication system was down – nobody had got me on my portable phone – so I went to Bradford Royal Infirmary to see what had happened. Fortunately the nurses were used to having a burns clinic once a week so they knew exactly what to do and from the initial complete chaos we got organised very rapidly.

That evening I went to the stadium and spoke to the chief fire officer. I wanted to find out what the materials were – whether it was just wood or whether there were foam rubber seats, which could have caused inhalation problems.

It was gruesome – there were policemen identifying body parts, and they were very distressed. There was still smoke in the air. I heard later from lucky people who had escaped from the back corridor that there'd been a thick, acrid black smoke. Many of the victims perished there.

The bad ones were taken to Pinderfields hospital in Wakefield and there were a number of deaths there. We operated on the patients with five per cent burns or less. There were a large number of hand burns and also scalp burns. People in the stand had been protecting their heads, which were burning in the heat. They put their hands on their heads and the backs of their hands got burned.

We admitted 80 people to St Luke's Hospital, where our unit was based. We had four theatres and plastic surgeons from around the country came to help. We had three days of operations and were done by the Wednesday night.

Morale was high among the patients because they had all been at the same event and all had similar injuries so they supported each other.

Some of the work that we did was quite ground-breaking. We performed tangential excisions – shaving off dead tissue and putting grafts within three or four days – and this technique was only a few years old.

There were 258 burns victims in all but a lot were treated as outpatients. There were far more people affected than I ever realised because I constantly speak to people in Bradford who say things like "I was at the fire" or "You grafted my uncle's hand".

Afterwards I received an OBE along with John Settle, who was in charge of Pinderfields, but I was part of a team and I would like to say that I received it on behalf of everybody.

To donate to the Bradford Burns Research Unit Appeal, go to: