Video: 30 years on, Bradford City fire tragedy becomes a drama

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IT HAS been branded football’s ‘forgotten tragedy’, its significance perhaps overlooked in a decade which saw the stadium disasters of Heysel and Hillsborough.

Yet for the people of Bradford, the harrowing memories of the Bradford City fire continue to hang over the city like the thick black cloud which formed over Valley Parade stadium on May 11, 1985.

Director of Valley Parade fire disaster play, Matthew Stevens-Woodhead, and Jemma Wilson.

Director of Valley Parade fire disaster play, Matthew Stevens-Woodhead, and Jemma Wilson.

As the club prepares to mark the 30-year anniversary of the blaze, which killed 56 people, a young theatre company based in Yorkshire is re-telling the tragedy through the eyes of those who saw it.

The FYSA Theatre production of The 56 debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe festival last summer, but a series of new testimonials from survivors, emergency service workers and sporting figures have been added to the as it prepares to embark on a national tour.

“At first we had a very good core of supporters helping us, but I think our age worked against us at first,” said artistic director Matt Stevens-Woodhead, 22.

“After the success of Edinburgh more and more people have come forward to tell us their stories. We had people coming from Bradford to see it and telling us they were really glad they’d made the journey.

“We were approached by sports figures like John Hendrie but also policemen and firemen who worked on the day.

“This isn’t just the story of a fire, it’s the story of how a community pulled together and hopefully we are doing it justice.”

The idea for the verbatim production stemmed from a chance meeting between Mr Stevens-Woodhead, co-writer Gemma Wilson, a Bradford-born City supporter, and a fire survivor.

They were attending a Hillsborough memorial service at Sheffield Wednesday’s ground when the man, who had witnessed both tragedies, remarked that one of the darkest chapters in Bradford’s history was often lost on the world of English football. Miss Wilson said: “There is a sense that now, as those who were there get older, it’s important to educate younger people about what happened.”

Mr Stevens-Woodhead said: “I think the fact it is thought of as forgotten is a testament to the way Bradford dealt with the tragedy. It almost put its arms around itself and said ‘we’ll deal with this’ and that isn’t really a bad thing.”

One of their interviewees was Terry Yorath, the former Leeds United player who was assistant coach at the club when they played Lincoln City on the last Saturday of the season.

He was injured when he was forced to jump out of a window after evacuating supporters from the players’ lounge bar. For Mr Yorath, whose daughter, television presenter Gabby Logan is making a documentary about the disaster, there are three stand-out memories which still haunt him to this day.

“Straight after the fire I was walking the streets seeing people who had been burned,” Mr Yorath told The Yorkshire Post.

“I saw a man whose hands had been completely burned, they were white, and he asked me where the ambulances were. I had to sit him down and tell him they would be there soon.

“Next I was just trying to find my family and the players and their families to make sure they were all okay.

“And I’ll never forget how black the sky went above.”

Click the screen above to watch an eyewitness account of the fire by Bill Bridge, former sports editor of The Yorkshire Post, recorded on the 25th anniversary of the tragedy.

• The nine-date national tour of The 56 begins at Barnsley Civic on March 13. The performances include a three-night run at Bradford’s Alhambra and a night at Lincoln’s Drill Hall in April.

Each year Bradford holds a memorial service to honour the memories of the 54 Bradford supporters and two Lincoln supporters who lost their lives in the blaze, but there have long been calls for wider recognition across English football.

Last year it was announced that clubs across the country will hold a minute’s silence during the weekend of April 24 to 27 for the 30th anniversary. The date coincides with Bradford’s last home match of the season, against Barnsley in League One.