Bradford City Football Fire
On May 11 1985 a series of circumstances on the day would lead to tragedy, 56 people dying and over 250 seriously hurt in a flash fire at the Valley Parade stadium. Another set of circumstances pre-dated the conflagration, however, making it doubly tragic in that it was so avoidable.
Several specific circumstances conspired to create the scale of the disaster on the day. Firstly, after nearly half a century in the league’s lower reaches Bradford City had won the Third Division title, and so the ground was packed with more than 11,000 fans, twice the usual turnout. The old wooden stand that burned so readily was to be re-roofed with a steel design, and work to replace it was due to begin the following week, indeed the steel for the new structure was sitting in the ground’s car park. And the weather that day was hot; with a strong breeze blowing that would fan the flames once the fire was established.
Although it has never been proved beyond doubt, the accepted cause of the fire is that a burning cigarette was dropped through a gap in the stand onto piles of rubbish beneath it, rubbish that was said to have accumulated for years. Once the fire took hold it had plenty of fuel to feed upon before spreading to the rickety wooden structure.
Just before half-time a small fire was noticed at the rear of G block in the old stand, but it was thought to be a minor matter that could be tackled with minimal disruption, and the stand as a whole was not evacuated. Sadly some of those in the immediate vicinity moved back into the corridor behind the stand, where most of the victims would die, trapped in a narrow space where smoke and carbon monoxide would end their lives. Even some who reached an exit and got through it would still be claimed by the deadly gases.
Suddenly the fire became far more intense, flashing into an inferno. The roof burned, dripping boiling tar onto those beneath. Panic struck the area, and thousands spilled onto the pitch. Many rushed to help those trapped and injured, 28 police and 22 spectators later recognised for their bravery. But, perhaps not realising what had happened, others danced in front of the TV cameras there to record Bradford’s big day.
Many Asian families in the Manningham area around the ground opened their homes to the shocked and superficially injured who were fleeing the scene. The local hospitals were flooded with burns victims and others suffering from the effects of smoke inhalation.
When the fire was extinguished the final death toll of 56 would be determined.
Without the heroism of those 50 picked out for their bravery more would have died. But had others done a better job beforehand the fire could have been avoided. Warnings had been given some time before the fire about the danger posed by the accumulated detritus beneath the old stand. Warnings had been given too about the danger of the old wooden stand.
The regulations established in 1975 after the 1971 Ibrox disaster were waived for lower league grounds by the government after lobbying about costs. So the need to remove combustible material from stands, the requirement for wooden stands to be capable of evacuation within 150 seconds, and the stipulation that all spectators be within 30m of a manned exit, were not enforced at Bradford. As the team had been promoted to Division 2, the so-called Green Guide rules would apply to the ground for the first league game of the following season.
After the event about £4 million was raised to support the victims. Memorials now stand at the ground and the town hall to remember them. And a very practical memorial was produced by some of those funds going to develop a specialist burns unit at Bradford Royal Infirmary. Sadly, however, the disaster at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough ground would still happen four years on, in spite of the Popplewell Report into the Bradford Fire identifying some of the problems that caused that further disaster.
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