The horror a city can never forget

Twenty years ago today, fire ripped through Bradford City's Valley Parade ground, killing 56 people. Richard Sutcliffe reports.

"ALL those who could get out, got out."

It was only when a sombre-faced policeman whispered those words to Stuart McCall, a full hour after a raging fire had destroyed the antiquated wooden main stand at Valley Parade, that the then 20-year-old Bradford City midfielder realised the true horror of an afternoon that would leave an indelible mark on not just the city, but the whole country.

Fifty-six men, women and children died and more than 200 were seriously injured when a discarded match or cigarette butt triggered what would become, until Hillsborough four years later, the worst disaster in English football.

May 11, 1985, was supposed to have been one of the most joyous days in Bradford City's history with captain Peter Jackson being presented with the Third Division title before kick-off in front of a capacity crowd of 11,076.

McCall had been a key figure in that success and, in just his third season as a professional, was determined to bask in City's glorious achievement. Instead, he was plunged into a nightmare, a frantic search round the hospitals of Bradford and Wakefield for his dad Andy, who had been watching the game from the centre of the 77-year-old Main Stand.

Twenty years may have passed since the disaster, but the memories are as vivid as ever for the current Sheffield United assistant manager. He said: "I didn't notice it straight away because I was caught up in the game, but just before half-time, smoke started billowing out of the end block in the stand. Play was stopped and we were sent to the dressing room. Suddenly, Taff (City's assistant manager Terry Yorath) burst in and screamed 'Get what you can and get out'.

"I had eight or nine members of my family in the stand and wanted to make sure they were all OK, so I jogged down the road behind one end of the ground and sneaked back in from there. It was only a couple of minutes since we had left the pitch but the whole stand was ablaze. Thousands of people were on the pitch, so I just presumed everyone had got out.

"I saw Peter Jackson's dad, so I made sure someone passed that information on to Peter. We (the players) were then told to meet up in a pub on Manningham Lane, and it was there that I found out most of my family and friends were safe. We were watching Grandstand on the pub television and they didn't mention anything about people having died, so I wasn't unduly worried that my dad still hadn't been seen.

"About an hour after the fire, I walked back down to Valley Parade to see if it was possible for me to move my car and drive back home to Leeds. I touched the car, it was red hot, and then a policeman came over. His face was the palest I have ever seen, so I asked him if everything was all right. It was only when he said 'All those who could get out, got out' that I realised people had died. My whole body froze."

The dropped match or cigarette butt had ignited litter under the wooden stand and within minutes a fireball had engulfed the stand, the heat intensified by the design and materials of the roof. Exit gates at the back of the stand were padlocked so the only possible route to safety was via the pitch.

McCall, by now growing frantic, decided to return home with his family to try to contact his dad, a former professional footballer who had been a team-mate of John Charles at Leeds United in the 1950s. Andy was a fit and active 60-year-old in 1985, but his son was still worried.

He said: "There were no mobile phones in those days, so we just kept trying to ring his house. Eventually, my brother, Les, and I drove back to Valley Parade and looked where my dad always parked his car. It wasn't there and I was so relieved. It was only later I found out it had been so busy that day he had to park elsewhere. We rang home but there was still no word so we decided to try St Luke's Hospital.

"I was still wearing my kit and shin-pads and went straight to reception to ask 'is Andy McCall here?' I was disappointed when I was told 'no' and only realised later that if his name had been on that list, he would have been dead.

"The lady behind the counter then said 'Nine or 10 of the most serious cases have been taken to Pinderfields Hospital in Wakefield, I'll check that list for you'. My heart sank when she said he had been transferred there.

"We raced to Wakefield. My brother drove because I was shaking so much I wouldn't have been able to, and spoke to a nurse who said 'we are just cleaning him up, he has 30 per cent burns but his wounds are superficial'.

"I didn't have a clue what superficial meant and asked my brother, who also didn't know. The nurse then took us into the ward and stopped between two beds. I looked to the left and there was a gentleman whose face was just full of bubbles. I just screamed, presuming it was my dad. A couple

of seconds later, there was a shout 'son, son I'm over here'. It was my dad, his arms were bandaged and he had yellow ointment on his face, but he was instantly recognisable.

"When the smoke had started billowing, he had gone to the back of the stand but been forced back by the sheer volume of people. So he and his partner, Joan, ended up having to clamber over the seats and wall on to the pitch. I have never asked too many questions about what went on because, due to the panic, it seems to have been almost a case of 'every man for himself' as everyone tried to escape and get their loved ones out."

McCall's father was in hospital for several weeks and underwent skin grafts on both his hands and head. The mental scars were, however, harder to heal.

"I played another three years at Bradford after the fire but my dad could not face going back. In fact, he only saw me play once in my time at Everton and twice for Glasgow Rangers. It was only when I re-joined Bradford in 1998 that he felt able to watch live football again.

"I took him round Valley Parade on a non-match day, showed him the new stand, and after that first game he was fine. The fire still upsets him but, thankfully, the footage isn't shown on television any more.

"But if we are watching a film and a car catches fire following a crash, I can see it upsetting him. So, I turn the channel over and we watch something else. The memories also flood back for me every time there is a disaster on the news."

McCall will, as usual, attend today's memorial service outside Bradford City Hall.

"There are people there every year who lost members of their family in the fire, and I always find it hard when the wreaths are laid and the City Hall bells start chiming.

"I see what so many people have been through because of the fire, and I consider myself very, very fortunate because I had eight or nine members of my family in the stand that day and they all got out alive."