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Bradford Football Fire Remembered 30 Years On

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The 30th anniversary of the Bradford fire continues to stir up memories for those, like me, who witnessed a tragedy almost without precedent.


I had just turned 17 and was an occasional visitor to Valley Parade.

On the day of the fire I went along with an extended family of cousins and uncles to join what was expected to be a day of relief and celebration. The club was playing Lincoln City and had already won promotion.

The ground was full to capacity.

Gates at the back of the grandstand were locked

In the grandstand - where I was - the young, the old and the infirm jostled for space. They were joined by many who wanted to share the occasion but had not been to the stadium before.

They would not know that if they needed to leave their seats in a hurry they could not get out where they came in. The gates at the back of the stand were locked.

That is where many of the dead were later found.

So intense was the blaze that the number of bodies was originally miscounted. Some corpses were mistaken for a bundle of charred black bin-bags.

The fire started shortly after the start of the second half.

I was at the opposite end of the grandstand from where the smoke initially appeared.

At first spectators assumed it was a smoke bomb. Some people sang, never imagining what was about to unfold, "burn it down, burn it down".

My memory of the day is sketchy. But I remember with bitter clarity the exact moment when the jokes and banter turned sour, when the bonhomie turned to panic, when grown men started climbing over others to escape the smoke.

I was standing in what was known as 'the Paddock' - a standing area beneath the grandstand roof, which ran around the edge of the seating blocks.

At the edge of the pitch there was, thank God, simply a 4ft-high stonewashed brick wall.

This was before the fences - which would truncate so many lives at Hillsborough a few years later - had been erected to foil hooligans.

The crowd surged away from the seat of the fire, which was moving towards us at speed, its energy accelerated by the stadium roof, which turned the grandstand into an oven.

I became wedged against the wall, until a stranger - whose face I never saw - hauled me over.

Running towards the centre circle I became aware of two things; an old man gazing out from the centre of the grandstand, standing stock-still, looking out towards me, just before blazing timbers fell and entombed him.

The other thing was the noise. The sheer, deafening din of a huge fire.

TV pictures of the Valley Parade disaster communicate many things - terror, pathos, loss - but they never get across the sheer volume of that hideous inferno.

For a couple of minutes I, in common with thousands of others, shuffled around the pitch, shouting out for loved ones or gazing at the stand.

I moved towards the goal posts at the Bradford End, for no better reason than that was the way towards the town centre, and my bus home.

Between the posts, and I struggle to recall this with composure to this day, lay the body of a middle-aged woman.

Again, I cannot remember her face, but I do remember the way her tights and clothing had warped like burned plastic.

Today, even if this disaster had happened (which it wouldn't), such scenes could not be witnessed.

Sporting arenas have become highly medicalised venues, with paramedics and hi-tech, life-saving equipment on hand. But in 1985 things were different. The past, as they say, is another country.

As I headed into town, I noticed an elderly man in front of me with terrible burns to the back of his neck and ears.

He was walking as if oblivious to his injuries, perhaps in shock, perhaps simply symbolic of an older, stoical generation who did not like to make a fuss, however justified.

And, in a sense, that man became emblematic of the country's reaction to the Bradford fire.

Unlike Hillsborough, it did not become a cause celebre for campaigners.

There was grumbling in the city when the inquiry into the cause of the blaze was lumped in with a riot which happened on the same day by Leeds United fans in Birmingham.

But, other than that, there was little in the way of immediate memorialising or ostentatious grieving.

In a sense that was partly a function of the medium in which I now make a living.

We have all seen pictures of the Hillsborough disaster in Sheffield. The pictures can be shown without upsetting viewers. It is very hard to find pictures of the Bradford Fire that can be aired.

The images, including one of a man on fire, cannot be replayed.

For those of us who were there it remains a perplexing anniversary. In particular the sheer incongruity of the thing. A football ground was a place of fun and escapism, of dreams and joy. Not nightmares. Not charred corpses. Not mass casualties.

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