A NEW book, published on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the blaze which killed 56 fans at Bradford City’s football ground, has linked the club’s former chairman to at least eight other fires in the city.
The book, written by Bradford fan Martin Fletcher, who lost his father, grandfather, uncle and younger brother in the tragedy, alleges that former club chairman Stafford Heginbotham received insurance payouts totalling £27 million in today’s terms from a series of fires at other premises, dating back to 1967.
The claims, which are now being serialised in The Guardian, were reported shortly after the stadium fire, but never received widespread publicity.
Though he does not allege that the Bradford City fire was started deliberately, Mr Fletcher asks in the book: “Could any man really be as unlucky as Heginbotham had been?”
The 77-year-old stand which burned down at Valley Parade was due to have been dismantled just two days later and the ground brought into line with modern safety standards. An inquiry into the disaster led by Mr Justice Popplewell established that the fire had been started by a discarded cigarette or match that had fallen between one of the many gaps in the wooden floorboards. Piles of litter which had collected underneath were blamed for fanning the flames so quickly.
Mr Heginbotham, who died ten years after the fire, aged 61, was one of two local businessman who had rescued Bradford City from receivership in 1983. He ran a string of mostly textile businesses in the Bradford area, often operating out of former mill buildings in an era when blazes at such premises were commonplace.
Could any man really be as unlucky as Heginbotham had been?Martin Fletcher
Mr Fletcher, who as a 12-year-old managed to escape from the blazing Valley Parade stand, has spent 12 years researching his book, which also alleges that Mr Heginbotham’s business empire was in dire financial straits at the time of the 1985 blaze.
Responding to Mr Fletcher’s book, Sir Oliver Popplewell, the judge who presided over the inquiry into the disaster, said he was “absolutely sure” it was started accidentally.
He told The Yorkshire Post: “I have never heard the suggestion made that it was deliberately started by Heginbotham, which is the allegation.
“The only suggestion at the time was from a newspaper that someone had thrown a missile and that had started the fire.
“The idea that Stafford Heginbotham deliberately started the fire was not something we heard.
“There were some civil proceedings after my inquiry involving the club, the local authority and health and safety and I think those were settled.
“If it had been raised then that it was started deliberately it would have got into the press, and I don’t think it did.
“I am not suggesting Martin Fletcher’s enquiries about previous fires are wrong because he has done the research but it is the first time I have ever heard of it.
“All the evidence we had at the time suggested it was an accident, and you can see that from the film.”
He added: “If someone has had eight previous fires and then there is a ninth, it does raise questions, but no-one ever told us that.
“If someone had told us that, then Stafford Heginbotham would have had to come along and explain. No-one put that to him at the time.
“I honestly don’t think it would have affected my judgement. It was as clear as a pikestaff what had happened.
“We had a fire officer and two assessors, there was nothing to suggest it had been deliberately started.
“One of the suggestions in the report was that I got on with it too quickly, but I don’t think that is a failing, if you consider the five years it took Lord Saville to complete [the Bloody Sunday Inquiry].
“The police had done a thorough investigation and the fire people had done a thorough investigation.”