Martin Fletcher: THE 56 - The Story of the Bradford Fire
Tragedy, bravery and a commitment to uncover the truth underpin this sorrowful book that if justice is to be served should lead to a publicly funded re-examination of the 1985 Bradford Fire.
Twelve-year-old Martin Fletcher was in a joyful mood. In 1985, his beloved Bradford City had won promotion to the second flight of English football. One hour before the kick-off against Lincoln City in the final game of the season the City players paraded the championship trophy in front of the celebrating Bantams supporters.
Sitting together in the main stand alongside Martin were his father, brother, grandfather and uncle. Martin's future looked secure. His parents had just moved to a large house in Nottinghamshire and his young father appeared set for a successful business career. All five people's lives were to be torn apart in the events that unfolded.
The City ground, Valley Parade, was in a dilapidated state and success on the pitch meant that the club was going to be required to rebuild the whole ground if they wanted to play there in a higher level of football. The major problem was that the club was skint.
Valley Parade should have been rebuilt many years earlier. The main stand, where Martin and his family were seated, was wooden. Martin could recall an occasion when he had dropped some paper down between the gaps in the floor and had been swiftly reprimanded as in an era where smoking was still permitted the fear was a fire would break out.
Getting in and out of the main stand was also problematic. There were narrow exit/entrance tunnels and the drop down from the seats into the standing paddock area at the front of the stand was significant, making it difficult for anyone to gain access to the pitch in the case of an emergency. Meanwhile, the exit gates were locked until around 20 minutes before the end of the match, although, in fact, on this particular fateful day that was, surprisingly, not the case as they were opened
Other parts of the ground had previously been condemned after inspections had highlighted dangers in the structural foundations.
Safety concerns had been expressed by a number of authorities. A health and safety inspector for West Yorkshire County Council (WYCC) had instructed the club to remove litter from under the Main Stand in 1980. The following year the club had been asked by the same officer how they would evacuate the Main Stand in under 150 seconds. In July 1984, WYCC letters warned the club about combustible materials beneath the stand.
WYCC’s fire officer, Graham Karran, later wrongly claimed that there was nothing they could do to make the council listen. Yet there was legislation, which the fire authority had used to close a rickety Yorkshire County Cricket stand in Bradford, that gave the fire authority powers to inspect undesignated sports grounds and if necessary close stands. A bankrupt Bradford City itself did nothing to improve facilities or to encourage any local inspecting body to visit their ground.
Such a culture of complacency had led to football stadium tragedies in the past. In 1946, 33 supporters at the Bolton Wanderers versus Stoke City FA Cup tie had been crushed to death when the Burnden Park terracing they were allowed on to become overcrowded. At the Ibrox Stadium disaster in 1971, 66 Rangers fans died on a badly designed staircase. This resulted in new rules being slowly introduced to make grounds safer and ended the long running situation whereby football clubs were largely allowed to self police safety at their grounds.
Problem was that the licensing process, with grounds in the lower leagues last on the list, was to be staggered over four phases and when Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 there was no urgency to force football clubs to bring their grounds up to adequate standards.
With promotion in the offing, Bradford City could though no longer not act. But where was the money to come from? The club had announced that improving the ground to bring it up to scratch would cost at least £400,000. This though seemed a massive underestimate as considerably greater sums had been needed for much less work at other stadiums across Britain. Even so, the club would still need to find £100,000 to cover the 25 per cent shortfall if as expected 75 per cent of its costs were covered by funds from the Football Grounds Improvement Trust. (FGIT)
City’s funding problem was resolved when at 3:40pm on Saturday 11th of May 1985 the Main Stand was set alight and the fire that ripped through it led to 56 people being killed. Even more would have died if not for the bravery of the police, 42 of whom were injured.
The author of The 56, who survived in part because he got split off from his family during the emergency evacuation of the ground, describes the horror of fighting for his life. Relief is then followed by the fear that all four of his relatives may have suffered when he returns to the parked family car and can't find them. Initially the author is unaware that people have been killed but when his mother discovers the truth the pair are also faced with the Press camping outside their house in search of a story. Then over the following months, as mother and son are continuously photographed at numerous commemorative events, Martin discovers that not all his new school mates are sympathetic.
Whilst the author struggles to come to terms with his losses, the Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, has acted with ridiculous haste. Within two days of the fire, Brittan has announced an inquiry into events at Valley Parade. Even worse, Brittan has also linked it with the football violence that had taken place at the Leeds United game away to Birmingham City on the same day in which saw one supporter lose his life when a wall collapsed.
The inquiry that had taken place after the Ibrox disaster had been led by a Lord Chief Justice (Wheatley) but on this occasion a High Court judge with less seniority was appointed.
Lord Popplewell began his examination of events at Valley Parade just 13 days after the forensic search of the site was completed. By stating “it is a factual exercise. Blame will not be apportioned” then it was clear the inquiry was never going to be responsible for answering all the questions raised by the fire. It lasted a measly five and a half days with Popplewell concluding the cause of the disaster was the dropping of a lighted match, cigarette or tobacco. Yet no clear evidence or testimony that anyone was smoking was presented to prove this. In December 1983, the Timber Research and Development Association had inspected the Main Stand and following the fire it submitted its evidence to the Popplewell Inquiry. It council concluded, 'It is extremely unlikely a small source of ignition on its own, say a cigarette in a plastic cup, could have been the primary cause of the ignition of the timber structure.'
Following the fire, Stafford Heginbotham, a local businessman who had invested £20,000 to retake control at Valley Parade in 1983, was telling people that the club had not received the correspondence in July 1984 about the combustible material beneath the stand. Yet parts of the correspondence had clearly been previously employed on a Football Grounds Improvement Trust grant application. A day after the fire, Heginbotham told the press that he had been planning to start renovating the stand on 13 May with steel that was already on site. Photographs of the burnt out site proved this was a lie. In fact the preliminary meeting with the council on a process that would have lasted, at least, 12 months was not even set till 15 May.
Heginbotham in the meantime was facing ruin as everything he had built up in his businesses over many decades was disappearing before him. Faced with severe international competition, his soft toys company, Tebro Toys, was on a two-day working week and the company was wound up on January 1986 with debts of over £752,000 - the equivalent of £5 million today.
In reality, Bradford City, Heginbotham's one remaining business could only be rescued with public funds. This is what happened as only a few short weeks after Tebro Toys was wound up it was announced that one of the last gestures to be made by West Yorkshire County Council before its formal abolition under the Tories was to present its £1.46 million surplus to Bradford City. With the fire insurance proceeds coming to half a million and another £488,000 from FGIT grants it meant that Bradford City contributed nothing towards what was essentially a completely new ground and had even been left with a £200,000 surplus.
In 1987, Heginbotham, having suffered a second heart attack sold his shares in Bradford City for £450,000 and later, following a successful investment in a hotel, he moved as a tax exile to Jersey. He died in 1995.
By now, whilst the club had admitted at a successful civil case that was mounted against them - that they knew the stand was a fire hazard they claimed they had not foreseen the consequences of not removing the litter because the county council had not been proactive enough in forcing them to act. Yet the contradictions and discrepancies that had been presented to the public and the authorities were allowed to remain and Martin’s mum refused to accept them whilst doing her best to try and get on with her life whilst persuading her son to do the same.
Martin Fletcher’s success in doing this has been mixed. Nevertheless he did well at school, went to University and was on the way to a successful career. However, he was regularly forced to confront the mental anguish of what he experienced and as he entered adult life he began to look back at the evidence by examining videos and newspaper coverage of the fire and the Popplewell inquiry itself.
There then began a very long journey in the attempt to find the truth. An unexpected phone call (from the author of this piece) lead to him re-exploring the Paul Foot Daily Mirror columns that appeared just after the fire. These revealed that five businesses belonging to Heginbotham had gone up in smoke. The sums involved were large. Yet no one in the press, within football or the police in May 1985 or afterwards had bothered to look into this.
A much more curious Fletcher then began laboriously going back through old newspapers and discovered many more fires at premises belonging to Heginbotham. The combined total rose to, at least, nine and they all followed a pattern in that once they started they spread very quickly, produced an incredible amount of toxic smoke and devastation and all caught the fire brigades unaware. Taken together, the insurance paid out to Heginbotham for the fires excluding the one at Valley Parade was around £10 million today. When Valley Parade is added to the total it comes to around £27 million.
So in a sense not only did the Bradford Fire rescue Bradford City from being unable to pay for its new ground but it was a series of fires that saved Heginbotham from financial ruin.
None of which, of course, proves that the events on 11 May were the results of any deliberate actions by persons unknown.
Yet thirty years on they certainly do warrant further investigation by a suitable publicly funded inquiry that unlike in 1985 is tasked with assembling all the available information.
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