The judge who led the original inquiry into the 1985 Bradford City Fire has criticised “conspiracy theories” about its cause after the Government rejected calls for a fresh investigation into the blaze which killed 56 people.
Sir Oliver Popplewell has praised the dignity and courage showed by people in Bradford “who have had to endure this period of uncertainty” following claims made by survivor Martin Fletcher on the 30th anniversary of the tragedy.
Mr Fletcher, whose father, brother, uncle and grandfather died in the Valley Parade blaze, wrote a book claiming the fire was was one of nine that occurred at businesses owned or linked to the club’s then-chairman Stafford Heginbotham.
West Yorkshire Police voluntarily referred itself to the police watchdog, who in January this year ruled out the possibility of a new inquiry into potential misconduct by officers.
The Independent Police Complaints Commission said it would not be launching an investigation but recommended that the force consider making public more of its records relating to its investigation into the causes of the fire.
The Home Office has now revealed that it has since rejected a further request for an independent review of the case. A spokesman said officials were “not convinced” there was a public interest in establishing an inquiry.
After every disaster there are always conspiracy theories - this one is no different. There are people out there who still believe that Elvis is alive.Sir Oliver Popplewell
In a letter to The Yorkshire Post, Sir Oliver said: “It is a great pity that the citizens of Bradford who have behaved with great courage and dignity have had to endure this period of uncertainty.
“They will be greatly relieved now to know that the original findings of the Inquiry remain intact.
“After every disaster there are always conspiracy theories - this one is no different. There are people out there who still believe that Elvis is alive.”
The official inquiry into the tragedy on May 11, 1985, led three weeks later by Sir Oliver, concluded it was an accident and was probably started by a spectator dropping a cigarette into rubbish that had accumulated under an old timber stand.
The blaze ripped through the wooden structure in just a few minutes as Bradford City played Lincoln City, leaving many fans unable to get out. Fifty-four Bradford City supporters lost their lives in the fire, along with two Lincoln City fans.
The claims about fires at businesses owned or linked to Mr Heginbotham, who died in 1995, were in Mr Fletcher’s book Fifty-Six – The Story of the Bradford Fire, published in 2015.
In his letter, Sir Oliver describes Mr Fletcher’s book as “sensational” and supported by The Guardian newspaper, who he said “produced equally sensational headlines on three separate days”.
He said: “The tribunal was not aware of the fact that Mr Heginbotham had had previous fires at premises with which he was connected.
“However, even a moment’s thought might have prompted the question of how Mr Heginbotham was able to insure the ground in the first place and why after the investigation, the same insurers paid out on the policy to Mr Heginbotham, if the previous fires were in any way suspicious.
“If Mr Fletcher or the Guardian had made the most elementary of enquiries they would have discovered that the Insurers, The Sun Alliance, had insured Mr Heginbotham in respect of both his private claims (of which they were fully aware) and of the Football Stand.
“They would also have discovered that the insurers were present at the inquiry instructing counsel on behalf of Mr Heginbotham.
“Finally, at the conclusion of the inquiry, the insurers not only paid out Mr Heginbotham for the stand but paid out their share of claims by relatives, including the Fletchers, who had brought civil claims.
“They would scarcely have paid out all these very substantial sums if they harboured the slightest doubt about the previous claims or about the cause of the fire itself.
“Thus the suggestion that the previous fires had any relevance to the fire at the ground can be shown to be totally without substance. They are plainly the result of some pretty sloppy journalism.”
Jamie Beagent, a partner at law firm Leigh Day, which represents Mr Fletcher, said: “This is an extraordinary attack by a former judge on an individual who lost three generations of his family at the Bradford disaster.
“It is especially ill-timed coming so soon after the Grenfell tragedy which has had a significant psychological impact on our client.
“We would respond in more detail to Sir Oliver’s letter but do not consider it, at this time, the most appropriate method to air such sensitive legal and personal matters.”
A Home Office spokesman said: “The horrific events at the Valley Parade ground on 11 May 1985 were a tragedy and we have great sympathy for all those who lost loved ones on that day, and for those who continue to be affected by the disaster.
“We gave very careful consideration to the matters raised by Mr Fletcher about the circumstances surrounding the fire, including the implementation of sports grounds safety legislation before the tragedy and the subsequent police investigation into the fire.
“After looking at all the available evidence, we are not convinced that there is any public interest to be served in establishing a further independent review or inquiry into the events surrounding the Bradford Fire.”
A spokeswoman for Guardian News & Media said: “Along with many other news organisations, we covered the publication of Martin Fletcher’s book on the Bradford City fire.
“We also reported on the reaction to it from Sir Oliver Popplewell in the form of both an interview with Sir Oliver and a letter from him on the subject. We consider our reporting on the issue to be fair and accurate.”
Assistant Chief Constable Russ Foster, of West Yorkshire Police, said: “Despite the passage of time, the terrible events of 11 May 1985 will never be forgotten by those who lost someone or were injured themselves, or by the wider community of Bradford. Our thoughts remain with them today.
“We have previously acknowledged the IPCC’s findings and although a large amount of the existing material relating to the Bradford City Fire has been previously released, we have, in line with the IPCC’s recommendation, started a process to consider whether it is possible and appropriate to make public any other documents still held. This process remains on going.”