Remembering Bradford hero Professor David Sharpe, who helped Valley Parade fire victims - Christa Ackroyd

Everyone from my home city of Bradford will remember exactly where they were the day fire broke out at Valley Parade, even though it is now almost 40 years ago. Hard to believe isn’t it ? Time passes. But some memories never fade.

I was heavily pregnant at the time and had settled down to watch the first cricket of the year at our local club. The lads were batting so most of the team were watching from the club house.

One of them, a massive Bantams fan, had brought along a transistor radio so as not to miss commentary from the legendary Tony Delahunty for Pennine Radio on what was to be the last match of the season after which City would be presented with the Third Division trophy which signified their promotion. It was a big day for Bradford City and the stands were packed to the rafters with fans who had come to celebrate, my brother being one of them.

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Mick, the cricketer, had the radio pressed to his ear so as not to interrupt the cricket. By all accounts it was a pretty dull game against Lincoln City with the score at nil nil. At around about 3.40 Mick turned round to tell us there was a small fire in the stand. Within minutes it was ablaze and I snatched the radio from him and rang the weekend reporter at Radio Aire and dispatched her to Bradford before ringing the police press office who said they believed no one had died. But it was chaos.

Professor David Sharpe in 2005. Picture by Jonathan Gawthorpe.Professor David Sharpe in 2005. Picture by Jonathan Gawthorpe.
Professor David Sharpe in 2005. Picture by Jonathan Gawthorpe.

It was long before the era of mobile phones so I gave her the number of the pub next to which the cricket match was being played which just happened to belong to my mother and father-in-law. It took her half an hour to get to the ground. And then she called. “It’s bad Christa, very bad,”she told me . “How do you know?,” I asked her. “Because I have just seen a young policeman covered in soot crouch down outside the stadium being violently sick,” she replied. Others she said were in tears.

Fifty six people died in that day, hundreds more were injured. At Bradford Royal Infirmary staff struggled to cope with the influx of people requiring urgent care. Within three hours all who had arrived at the Accident and Emergency department had been seen. Those with lesser injuries were dispersed to every hospital within miles to Halifax, Wakefield, Leeds, Batley and Harrogate. But the most severely burned were treated in the two Bradford hospitals. It was an emergency only planned for on paper. But out of it emerged stories of heroes.

My first lasting memory is of interviewing a man in his sixties who had suffered burns to his face and hands and was there at the match deputising for the Lord Mayor’s chauffeur. Like so many his first thought was for those who had perished but also for the heroes who tried to save them, from police officers to fellow spectators. He had been sitting in the blazing antiquated wooden stand rooted to the spot through fear when out of the smoke appeared two young lads who gently lifted him and arrived him to safety on the pitch with the words “Come on Grandad.. let’s get you out of here.” He wanted me to find them. But what he said next will stay with me forever. “You’ll have no difficulty in identifying them,” he said. “One had a bright blue mohican haircut the other had a shaved head and earrings through his nose (it was at the height of the punk rock era).

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He continued “You know, the kind of lads you would cross over the road to avoid if you were to meet them on a dark night… and here they were risking their own lives to save me. It’s taken me all these years to realise you should never judge a book by its cover… just tell them thank you from the old man in the stands.” I never found them but I hope they heard his interview.

35th Anniversary of the Bradford City Fire Disaster, Valley Parade, Bradford..11th May 2020..Picture by Simon Hulme 35th Anniversary of the Bradford City Fire Disaster, Valley Parade, Bradford..11th May 2020..Picture by Simon Hulme
35th Anniversary of the Bradford City Fire Disaster, Valley Parade, Bradford..11th May 2020..Picture by Simon Hulme

They were among many heroes that day. The commentaries of Tony for Radio and the lovely John Helm for TV are as haunting now as then. I know were deeply affected by what they saw.

But among the heroes is a man I am proud to say became not just someone I interviewed during the aftermath of the worst day our city experienced, but later a friend. Last week Professor David Sharpe, OBE, died. I wanted to tell you that in case you missed it. To Bradford City fans he was a hero they will never forget, so much so he was granted a lifetime season ticket and honoured at the ground for his work just before the thirtieth anniversary of the fire. Professor Sharpe was at the helm of treating the burns victims that day. It was he who called in ten per cent of all the plastic plastic surgeons in the country who came to help him. More importantly it was he who decided that what was needed was a state of the art burns unit for the future and was at the centre of the charitable drive to get one. He also invented a sling for the treatment of hand injuries, which is still used today across the world. Together with Bradford University they changed the treatment of burns injuries globally. And the Bradford Burns Research Unit, dedicated to finding new ways to treat victims, will forever to be the charity of choice for the football club whose disaster he had been at the forefront of dealing with.

What a man he was. Smart, dapper, compassionate and caring he was one of the best plastic surgeons in the land. At his private practice in Bingley he even had a helipad so his well off patients could travel to see him in style. But at his heart was the work he did that day and subsequently for the NHS. I have another more personal reason to thank Professor Sharpe. He also was a leading expert on skin cancer and it was he who detected two very dangerous moles on my then 21-year-old daughter, the baby of the family and the baby I was carrying on the day of the Bradford City fire. He removed them and yes they were cancerous and she has had regular check ups ever since, but I truly believe he saved her life. And for that I have thanked him every time we have met, the last time just a few months ago happy in retirement with his adoring wife Tracy who will be devastated at his passing.

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So I wanted to write this to say thank you Prof Sharpe on behalf of everyone in Bradford and to remind his family what he has meant to so many. Thank you on behalf of all those Bradford City fans whose mental scars remain forever for having been there but whose physical scars were treated with the best of care. Thank you on behalf of all the victims of burns across the world who have benefitted from the pioneering research at the Bradford Burns unit which you were so instrumental in setting up after the fire. But thank you especially from a grateful Mum whose daughter you operated on when we were both terrified of the outcome. Your legacy will live on in all those you treated and cared for. Quite simply you made the world a better place. And you left it so. I just wanted to tell you that.