The horror a city can never forget

HE is not a religious man. But for 30 years Julian Gratton has had to wrestle with a huge unknown.

The fire at Bradford's Valley Parade football ground in 1985.
The fire at Bradford's Valley Parade football ground in 1985.

Was it fate? Was it simply not his time? He doesn’t know the answers. And he never will. But he still asks himself the question – why didn’t he go to his normal seat?

He would go with his dad to every Bradford City match. They would sit in the main stand. Five minutes before half time they would go to the toilets, or to get a drink.

But on May 11, 1985, something told him not to go in the stand. His mum and his sister had gone with them to watch Bradford be presented with the trophy for winning the Third Division title, before the game against Lincoln.

The fire at Bradford's Valley Parade football ground in 1985.

When they reached the ground Julian, then aged 11, refused to go to his normal seat. “We headed to the main stand to get our seats but for some reason I didn’t want to go in. I wanted to go in the Kop end (in a different stand). My dad was really annoyed, but I was insistent and for some reason I just didn’t want to go in the main stand. My dad angrily dragged us to the Kop.”

From there they watched in horror as, shortly before half time, fire broke out next to the spot they would normally be sitting. “People were under the impression it was some sort of smoke bomb, as all there was at first was smoke. But then you saw the flames. The flames soon spread and in no time at all there was a three metre square patch of fire. Then the flames hit the ceiling of the stand.

“I’ve never seen fire like it. And the heat generated from that ball of flames as the old lead paint that lined the ceiling got lit up was unbelievable.

“There was a high concrete wall that blocked access to the pitch and you could see people helping each other, smoke pouring off their clothes.”

Less than four minutes after he had first seen the smoke the stand was fully ablaze. “At this point I saw something that has haunted me since that day. There was a man fully on fire. I remember at this point that screams of panic, desperation and sheer helplessness filled the air. ‘Get him out, get him out’...that’s all I remember hearing...then a ball of flames shot across him and he disappeared.”

By now the heat was so intense that people in the other stands were being affected. Julian and his family left the stadium in a state of shock.

Like many others, in the years that followed they rarely talked about what had happened. “It was never raised why I didn’t want to go in the main stand. I remember my dad once saying that if we had been in the stand we would have died.

“The majority of people killed were those trapped at the back of the stadium, those people who had gone to the toilets or for snacks before the half time whistle, which was exactly what we did.

“The day still haunts me. And I still see him. That man all in flames...people screaming, the ball of flames taking him. The heat. The smell. The helplessness.”

The cause of the blaze was a discarded match or cigarette, dropped through a gap in the wooden floorboards in the main stand. Beneath the floorboards was years of accumulated rubbish. The death toll reached 56, with more than 250 injured, many seriously. It made Julian’s refusal to go in the main stand even harder for him to contemplate. “I am not a religious person by any means, but there is this idea of fate, and it not being your time. You feel a little bit of guilt about it, and you wonder who was in my place.”

Julian, now 41, is managing director and creative director of the Red C marketing agency in Manchester. He is still affected by what he witnessed at Valley Parade, and this led him to create a not for profit website – brafordcityfire.co.uk – to give fans the chance to share their experiences of what happened to them on that dreadful day.

It contains stories of horror. And heroism. Phil Shaw tells how his friend Mick Bland – later to receive the Queen’s Commendation for bravery – repeatedly jumped into the stand to drag people out.

Phil and another friend were wondering how they could help when “Mick suddenly ran ahead and jumped into the burning stand, we were right behind him, he appeared with a boy, passed him to me and as I led him to safety Mick jumped back into the burning stand.

“He appeared again, helping an old man, and I watched as a policeman helped lead the man to safety. He jumped back into the burning stand and yet again I watched as he helped others pull someone else to safety.”

As the three men did all they could to help, the heat was so intense that Phil put his denim jacket over his head. “Suddenly my jacket was (taken) from me. It was Mick. He shouted at me to stay back, and yet again he disappeared into the smoke and flames with my jacket over his head.”

That was the last he saw of Mick until that night when he met him in hospital where Mick was being treated for burns to his hands. A few days later a policeman knocked at his door to return his jacket, which stank of smoke. “The officer said I was a hero and (he) had been looking for me. I had to stop him and explain what had really happened and who the real hero was, not me, but Mick Bland.”

Phil still has the jacket. “That’s now all that’s left. That and the memories of how something so simple enabled an ordinary lad to be recognised for his extraordinary feats.”

There are many other stories, including the tragic events that befell Martin Fletcher, who somehow scrambled through the stand to safety, but whose father, 11-year-old brother, uncle and grandfather were killed. Four years later he was at Hillsborough, when 96 people were crushed to death. He has since campaigned for ground safety improvements and has written a book about the fire.

The website set up by Julian contains other items including videos, news reports and, touchingly, a list of those who lost their lives. Its creation has helped him come to terms with what happened.

“It still affects me. It’s only now, later in life, that you realise what an effect it’s had.”

That is the same for many of the people who were there. Most just got on with things afterwards, and didn’t dwell on a day of devastation which changed their lives forever.

Julian feels their pain, and hopes his website will help. He also has come to terms with the question of why he wouldn’t go in the stand. “I have spoken to my dad, and we can’t get our heads around it. Why, of all the days, I refused to go in.”

It leaves Julian in something of a quandary. There, but for the grace of God.

Tomorrow: Many are called heroes, few deserve the title as much as John Hawley, the Bradford City striker who put his own life on the line to save others as Valley Parade burned.

DISASTER’S LEGACY HAS HELPED IMPROVE STADIUM SAFETY

The Valley Parade fire led to changes in the law governing safety at sports grounds across the UK. Chris Bond reports on how it took a disaster to transform grounds.

IT is the most dreadful of ironies that the Valley Parade fire engulfed a stand that just two days later was due to be dismantled.

Bradford City’s antiquated wooden main stand had hosted generations of fans and families during its 77-year existence. Another 90 minutes and it would have done its stint.

The Bantams, who were presented with the Third Division trophy before kick-off on the fateful afternoon of May 11, 1985, had won promotion.

This meant Valley Parade would have to comply with the Safety of Sports Grounds Act (1975) the following season, with clubs in the bottom two divisions of the Football League being exempt.

The £400,000 work was going to involve re-roofing, replacing the wooden seats and concreting the stand.

The Green Guide, effectively the guidelines on what work needed to be done for a licence to be granted, also stated that if a stand was wooden an evacuation had to be possible within two-and-a-half minutes.

City’s main stand was engulfed by the fire in four minutes and Mr Justice Popplewell, who led the inquiry into the disaster, later concluded the tragedy would never have occurred if Valley Parade had come under the remit of the Green Guide.

The Safety of Sports Grounds Act, which introduced safety certificates for the first time, came about in the wake of the 1971 Ibrox disaster when a crush among the crowd at an Old Firm football game led to 66 deaths.

Today, we look back at what happened at Valley Parade and shudder at the tragedy and the speed at which it all unfolded.

Back in the mid-1980s, though, English football was in the doldrums. Many grounds (they struggled to justify being called stadiums) harked back to another era.

Some pre-dated the First World War, never mind the Second, and there were even big clubs in the top flight that still had wooden stands with corrugated iron roofs.

The subsequent inquiry into the Valley Parade disaster published its final report in 1986. It concluded that the fire had been caused by a cigarette stubbed out in a polystyrene cup, or a lit match accidentally dropped on to litter debris beneath the main stand that fuelled the ensuing inferno.

The Popplewell inquiry made a series of recommendations included training stewards in fire-prevention, banning smoking in combustible stands, manning exits at all times and training the safety authorities in evacuation procedures.

All sports grounds holding more than 5,000 also had to conform to stringent safety standards, while the fire authorities were given the power to restrict the use of any stand that constituted a risk.

The report was seen as a huge step forward in terms of safety for supporters. Suddenly, clubs had to get certificates for a whole manner of things including CCTV, fire safety and the electro-magnetic gates before being issued with a licence. In other words no licence, no game.

Before 1985, many stewards were little more than cinema usherettes showing people to their seats, but afterwards clubs were required to have fully trained stewards manning every exit.

Today, our modern football arenas are comfortable and safe and unrecognisable from the crumbling relics of 30 years ago.

What happened at Valley Parade on that dreadful day has led to improvements in the construction and safety of football grounds that will ensure, hopefully, nothing like this can happen ever again.

It is at least one positive legacy that the victims’ relatives can take from all this.

The tragedy is that it took a disaster to make it happen.

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Download The Yorkshire Post’s original coverage from 1985.