Monday 22 January 2018

A family torn apart by Bradford City’s shocking tragedy

Alan Aherne: Book review

56: The story of the Bradford fire
56: The story of the Bradford fire

Monday, May 11, marked the 30th anniversary of a harrowing tragedy which remains ingrained in my mind even at this far remove.

On that date in 1985, twelve-year-old Martin Fletcher was one of five family members, spanning three generations, who travelled full of hope and expectation to watch a football match.

He was the only one who returned home to his mother though as his father, brother, grandfather and uncle were among the 56 supporters who lost their lives when a fire took hold and spread quickly in the main stand at Valley Parade, home of Bradford City.

I was the same age as Martin at the time and the regular routine in those days was to take a break from playing outside around 5 p.m. to switch on the television and get the day's soccer results. Remember, this was in an era long before live matches, the internet and all of the modern means of communication which now provide us with instant updates.

On that particular Saturday the sports results were replaced by news bulletins showing a rapidly-burning stand with thick black smoke billowing as the fans who were lucky enough to escape stood on the pitch in a combined state of bewilderment, shock and fear.

It was meant to be a day of celebrations. Bradford City had already won the old Division 3 and were presented with the trophy before their last home game of the season against Lincoln City. This was to be their 'lap of honour' so to speak in front of appreciative supporters before a summer spent looking forward to life in Division 2.

Part of the ritual of growing up for many is to attend sporting events with fellow family members, and the Fletchers were no different. Although they had moved away from Bradford, Martin had inherited his father's love for the club after some initial scepticism, so the chance to return and savour a special afternoon was eagerly seized when his uncle procured tickets.

Part one of the book initially takes us through Martin's happy pre-fire childhood, with his father doing well in business and achieving a great deal in his 34 years. By the end of that section though, the shocking events of May 11, 1985 have been recalled in detail and Martin's life has been cruelly changed forever.

When the fire rapidly took hold the author was no more than ten feet ahead of his father at one stage in the tight passage behind the stand where so many lives were lost. He looked back in fear but his father encouraged him to keep going and said they would meet at the car.

Martin never saw his father again, and all four victims from his family were identified from dental records. The passage in the book when his mother comes upstairs to his room to tell him all four have died is heart-wrenching and tear-inducing.

The wooden structure of the stand at Valley Parade gave supporters little chance of escaping when the fire took hold. At the time it was attributed to a discarded cigarette which fell through a crack and set rubbish under the stand alight. The oldest newspaper found in the debris afterwards dated from 17 years earlier in 1968 which seemed to back up the inquiry findings.

This story would be compelling in its own right without evidence now supplied by the author which perhaps suggests it wasn't an accident at all. Numerous businesses belonging to Bradford City owner Stafford Heginbotham, now deceased, had suffered serious fire damage since the 1960s.

So was there more to Valley Parade than initially met the eye or was this mere coincidence? Read this book and judge for yourself.

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