“HERO” is a word much over-used in football, far too often bestowed on a player who scores a couple of goals or saves a penalty.
John Hawley, however, is every inch a hero. A striker for 14 years with a host of clubs including Arsenal and Hull City, he was playing for Bradford City on the fateful day that saw an inferno sweep through the Valley Parade main stand with such devastating effect that 56 men, women and children lost their lives.
I honestly can’t tell you what I was thinking. Maybe I just didn’t think about it at all. Instinct might have just kicked in. It wasn’t me being brave, it was just a natural thing to do.
Amid the chaos and horror that saw the antiquated wooden structure engulfed in flames quicker than the time it takes to boil an egg, John put his own life on the line to save others.Countless fans, unable to make the five foot climb over the front wall to safety due to the shear exhaustion of already having fought their way to the front, were yanked clear of the flames by the burly arms of a man who had led the club’s attack all season. But for his bravery and the similar actions of others, the death toll on May 11, 1985, would have been much higher.
“It was supposed to be a day of celebration,” recalls the one-time centre forward to The Yorkshire Post while speaking in the front room of his well appointed house in the East Riding. “Bradford had won the Third Division title, but instead, it turned into a nightmare.”
The years building up to the fire disaster had not been kind to Bradford. The city had been left battered and bruised by a number of blows, from the decline of its once thriving textile industries through to the trauma of the Yorkshire Ripper. Football in the wool city had also suffered. Bradford (Park Avenue) had folded 11 years earlier, while the Bantams had spent the previous five decades trapped in the bottom two divisions. No wonder, then, that a feel-good factor had swept across the city in the five days since Trevor Cherry’s side had clinched the championship. Come the final day visit of Lincoln City, neither the dreary opening 40 minutes nor the inclement weather could dampen spirits. Then, though, the first plume of smoke appeared in the seats of the main stand.
“I didn’t think it was anything major,” explains John, now an auctioneer after calling time on his football career a year or so after the fire disaster. “It just looked like some idiot had let off a smoke bomb. Even when the referee stopped things, it still looked to be innocuous. I even went to the crowd and said, ‘Calm down, calm down’. But just 30 seconds later, I was picking the first person up and throwing him over my shoulder.”
The design of a stand that had been built in 1908 was behind the fire spreading, as one eye-witness put it later, “faster than a man could run”.
Not only was the structure largely made of wood but there was a void between the stand floor and the slope on which it had been built that had allowed rubbish to accumulate. Just how much was revealed later when a newspaper from 1968 and a pre-decimalisation peanut wrapper were found amid the charred remains.
Worst of all, however, was the roof - wood, covered in tarpaulin that had been sealed with asphalt. Once the flames had risen that high, they licked across the entire length inside seconds to plunge those frantically trying to escape into darkness as thick, black smoke enveloped everything.
“I honestly can’t tell you what I was thinking,” he says when asked why he headed towards the front of the ablaze stand and not away from the searing heat. “Maybe I didn’t think about it at all, I just don’t know. Instinct might have just kicked in. It wasn’t me being brave, it was just a natural thing to do.”
John started pulling supporters to safety over a perimeter wall that, from the pitch, was only a foot or so in height but almost four times as high from the paddock terrace. Much of it is a blur, something that can probably be put down to what is known as ‘fugue syndrome’ - the brain’s capacity to switch off during moments of extreme stress.
Others, however, had a much clearer recollection. Arnold Whitehead, 64 at the time but who passed away last year, was one of those who John yanked to safety. He had been taken to the game as a birthday treat by son-in-law, Paul Firth, but the pair became separated amid the chaos. Paul, blinded by the jet black smoke, headed for a small area of grey that proved to be daylight and the pitch. Arnold, meanwhile, used his Navy training and decided to go against the wind that was blowing into the stand. He negotiated rows of seats and two five-foot drops. A third substantial hurdle, this time that had to be climbed over, proved too much and left a desperate Arnold, as he later told his relieved family, “holding up my arms like a baby pleading for his mother”.
A big, burly pair of arms answered Arnold’s prayers, as the striker he had cheered on all season pulled him to safety. There was no time for gratitude, as his rescuer moved on to help others before, eventually, being forced back by the by now unbearable heat.
“I got a few letters afterwards saying ‘thank you’,” admits John. “But I was reading them and thinking, ‘I just don’t remember that’. Even Arnold. I was lucky enough to meet him for the first time a couple of years ago. His first words were, ‘You saved my ruddy life’. But I still couldn’t remember doing it.
“All I have is bits of memories. One of those is a guy who walked across the stand on fire. I tried to shout at him to come towards the pitch. A policeman, who could get a bit closer by this stage because he had a big coat on, was doing the same. But this guy was walking down the middle of the stand, obviously disorientated. We couldn’t get him.”
John’s voice trails off, lost in the moment. Eventually, he adds: “All I had on was my kit and it was just so hot. The shirt melted a bit on to me. And a lot of tar also dropped on to me from the roof.”
Many of the bodies were found towards the rear of the stand, the human instinct of leaving by the point of entrance having lured many towards the locked exits. For John, the priority once it had become clear no more could be done was to find his young son, Adam. The four-year-old had been sitting with three of John’s friends from Beverley. Happily, father and son were reunited in one of the goalmouths after Adam had been guided there by a female member of City’s staff.
“The thing that is fresh in my mind is turning away from the burning stand and thinking, ‘S***, where is Adam?’ Luckily, Adam had wanted to go to the toilet so was nearer the front when it started.”
As the damping down operation got under way, John drove home to Beverley. En route, he stopped off at a pub in Walkington for a drink.
“I was still in my kit,” he says. “Probably something to do with the shock. I remained in shock for days afterwards, even as we visited the injured in hospital and did loads of fund-raising. Now, there would be counselling, I’m sure. But that wasn’t the way then. People just got on with things.”