In the latest in our series marking the 30th anniversary of the Bradford City fire, sports commentator John Helm, who was covering the match that day, talks to Phil Booth.
HIS few minutes of commentary on that day of horror have been listened to by millions around the world.
The descriptions that afternoon have been likened to the words which accompanied the Hindenburg airship disaster, and been hailed as heartfelt, emotional yet professional, a fitting and measured tribute to those who were going through Hell.
But John Helm has never listened to his words. Or watched the footage. And he never will. For him, it was all too close to home.
Thirty years on, and John still holds a distinction he never wanted. He has commentated on nine World Cups, and witnessed at first hand some of the most amazing sporting spectacles from around the globe.
But he is best known for the heartrending way he described the scenes of horror when fire turned a day of celebration into one of total tragedy at his local football club, Bradford City.
The team was being presented with the trophy for winning the Third Division title. “I remember it was a beautiful day, a day from heaven,” says John. “The sun was shining and it was a day of proper celebration, a carnival atmosphere. We had a pre-match routine, and as usual at 12 o’clock I had lunch in the Victoria Hotel in Bradford.”
At the ground, the TV crew set up in a gantry in the stand opposite the main stand, which was due to be demolished a few days later. From this vantage point, John watched a dull game which was heading to half time at 0-0. When the ball went out for a throw in on the opposite side, he saw the first tiny flames.
“I just spotted this little glow. I asked the director to train the camera in and I said there appears to be a fire in the stand,” he says. “It was so small that if someone had put their foot on it, it would have gone out. Most people thought it was something and nothing.”
But as the fire began to spread with alarming speed, someone at ITV flicked a switch and the pictures went live around the world. Less than five minutes later the entire stand had burnt down. As well as 56 dead, more than 250 fans were injured, some horrifically.
“I was conscious of choosing my words very carefully and at the same time trying to tell people exactly what was going on. I just kept talking and did what I was told. I was very grateful for all the journalistic training I had.”
As the horrific events unfolded, he saw a couple he knew staggering across the pitch, suffering terrible burns.
But even so, he had no idea just how bad the situation was. “I didn’t realise, until two little boys clambered up an embankment behind us and shouted that there were two people dead. I didn’t know there were people at the back of the stand who were trying to get out but who couldn’t because the turnstiles were closed.”
The commentary is best known for John’s compassion as a man staggered onto the pitch engulfed in flames. On the commentary, his voice breaking, John said: “Oh, the poor man, the poor man.”
That moment in particular has been likened to the commentary of the Hindenburg disaster, when 36 people were killed, in the 1930s. Today, with understated humility, John says: “It was just the natural reaction for a commentator.”
By now it was obvious how serious the incident was. A wall separated the stand from the pitch, and many younger people were able to clamber over, but the elderly were struggling.
John heard afterwards of one man who managed to scramble out the stand but who turned round to see his father die, still in his seat. With emotions running so high, some fans took their anguish out on John. “People began stoning me and swearing and saying the cameras should be turned off.
“Afterwards I got a lot of letters of apology from people, and with hindsight we are glad we kept the cameras on as the emergency services still use the footage for training to this day.
“I carried on commentating as long as I could, then I went down to the pitch, saw the ambulances and began to realise how bad it was. I was told the temperature had reached 1,000 degrees, and even in the stand opposite it was hot. I interviewed a few people and we had to do a special programme that evening.”
He remained professional throughout, but the enormity of the disaster would take its toll. John had a distinguished journalistic background, but the events he had witnessed went deep and he knew many people at the match.
John was a member of the community, born and bred in Baildon, where he lives today. His Dad took him to Valley Parade for his first game at the age of nine, and when he was 11 he went on a school trip to see Yorkshire play Australia at cricket at Bradford Park Avenue’s ground.
He is now 73, but the excitement is still in his voice as he remembers. “They had a football pitch on one side, and cricket on the other, and you could sit in the stand in the middle and turn round and see both. It was amazing.”
His journalism career began at the weekly paper, the Shipley Times and Express, which he left after seven years to join the Yorkshire Post. In 1970 he joined BBC Radio Leeds as sports editor and moved into network television as a football producer, became head of outside broadcast in 1980 and when the football commentator Martin Tyler left a year later.
He was grateful for his background in news, but over the weeks following the fire the enormity of the disaster hit him hard.
“Everybody in Bradford knew somebody involved. The next day I had to cover the speedway and thought I couldn’t do it. I opened the programme with a line about there being no way I, or anyone in Bradford, could smile that day.”
Even after going on a break, he was still deeply troubled. “I wasn’t my normal self. I should have had some counselling but I didn’t,” he says. “It was a horrendous day that will live with people who were there forever. It will never go away, and different people deal with these things in different ways.”
John was never the same until the new stand had been built, and he went back to the ground on the day it opened. Gradually his love of sport returned, and today he is still working. But he feels it is essential to never forget.
“I recently took my grandchildren, eight-year-old twin girls, to a Bradford match and showed them the memorial. It was their first game at Valley Parade and I thought it right they should know.
“It’s a situation I hope no one is confronted with again. As a commentator it is something I will be remembered for. I would rather be remembered for a World Cup final or something, but hopefully I got it right.
“Words hopefully came out in the right order. I like to think we handled it sensitively.”