The Bradford City Stadium Fire
Bradford City’s home fixture with Lincoln City on 11 May 1985 should have been a day of celebration. It was the last day of the season, and Bradford had already won the Division Three title. There was a bumper crowd in the Valley Parade stadium to see the trophy – the club’s first for 56 years – handed to club skipper Peter Jackson before the game.
The club already had big plans to redevelop the ground’s main stand, which had stood unchanged since about 1911 and which had previously been identified as a significant fire risk, owing to the wooden terracing and roof, plus the large gaps in the floor through which litter dropped to accumulate below. Over the summer break, they were planning to replace the old terracing with concrete and put steel in the roof.
How the Bradford City Stadium fire started
A letter from the council detailing existing issues even before the events of 11 May 1985 had stated that “A carelessly discarded cigarette could give rise to a fire risk”. Shortly before half-time, a fan dropped a cigarette onto the floor of the stand and tried to stub it out – unfortunately, it slipped through a gap and onto the piles of litter below. He saw smoke start to rise and, along with his son, he tried to put it out by pouring his coffee onto it.
When that didn’t work, they went to fetch a steward, but by the time they returned, the fire had taken hold. Fire extinguishers were sought, but owing to fear of vandalism, there were none around. It is estimated that it took just four minutes for the whole stand to be engulfed in the flames.
While some of the spectators tried to escape out the back of the stand, only to find locked gates, others were trapped in their seats as burning timber and molten bituminous felt from the roof rained down on them. Fortunately, unlike at the Hillsborough tragedy four years later, there was no perimeter fencing at Valley Parade, so those fortunate enough to be at the front of the stand were able to escape onto the pitch.
56 people died in the fire, some still sitting in their seats, while others were crushed in the attempt to get out at the back. Another 265 were injured, many seriously.
At the subsequent inquest, responsibility for the disaster was shared between the club and the council for not taking seriously the warnings of the dangers that the old stand posed. Families of the victims brought legal action against the club and council, and the judge concluded that: “They (the club) were at fault, no one in authority seemed to have appreciated the fire hazard. No one gave it the attention it ought to have received…The fact is that no one person was concerned with the safety of the premises.”
An inquiry into the disaster, led by Sir Oliver Popplewell (and which became known as the Popplewell Inquiry) made a raft of recommendations that led to widespread legislation designed to increase safety at sports grounds. That included the banning of new wooden stands, the immediate closure of existing ones deemed unsafe and the banning of smoking in wooden stands.
Could the Bradford City Stadium fire have been prevented?
As we have seen, minimal effort had been made to ensure that paying customers were being kept safe when watching football in the 1980s. Not only was the stand itself a death trap, but previous warnings had been ignored – or at best deferred – and there were no fire extinguishers available in the event of a fire.
Unfortunately, the prevalence of hooliganism at football grounds in the 1980s meant that fan safety was the last concern of many clubs at the time, as would be seen to an even greater degree at Hillsborough in 1989.
Even given all that, however, it is likely that even if the club had only cleared up the accumulation of litter beneath the stand on a regular basis, the fire would not have taken hold so quickly and taken so many lives.
As a result of the disasters at Bradford and Hillsborough, the football experience is a considerably different – and safer – one today than it was then.
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