On 11 May 1985 football fans gathered at Bradford’s Valley Parade stadium to watch Bradford City play Lincoln City. Smoke began rising in Block G in the Main Stand just before half time. Within five minutes the stand was an inferno. Some 56 fans died and at least 265 were injured.
Martin Fletcher was in the Main Stand. The fire killed his father, brother, grandfather and uncle.
Martin told Socialist Worker, “There is a need for answers about what happened and why it happened.”
Martin raked over transcripts from the inquiry into the fire for his new book Fifty Six—The Story of the Bradford Fire.
The inquiry by Sir Oliver Popplewell lasted a week. It concluded that the fire had been caused by a lighted match, cigarette or tobacco.
Two forensic experts said it was “less likely” that a cigarette or pipe tobacco caused the fire. Dr David Woolley said a fire from a discarded cigarette would have left “red runs” on papers beneath the stand—but there was no evidence of this.
Home secretary Leon Brittan ordered the inquiry two days after the fire. He said no civil or criminal proceedings would be necessary.
An inquest jury later concluded that the deaths were caused by “misadventure”.
Martin said, “Things did not operate in the way they should have. It confirms what you’re growing to dread—that material evidence was not disclosed which could have changed the whole mindset of the judicial appeal.”
When smoke was first detected police directed people into a narrow corridor at the back of the stand. It took three minutes for chief inspector Charles Mawson to act when the fire broke out. When Mawson and other officers finally began to beckon people forward onto the safety of the pitch, flames were growing.
Some 90 seconds later over 40 people were dead in the death trap corridor. There were no fire extinguishers in Block G.
Martin said politicians could have done more to prevent the disaster. “If politicians had implemented the safety recommendations we wouldn’t have had 30 years of this madness,” he said.
“There seemed to have been contempt for people in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. Football was not a middle class game like rugby—the majority of fans were working class.
“It seemed we were not worthy of civil liberties.”
How police and politicians refused to keep fans safe
Top cops met in the weeks after the Hillsborough football disaster in 1989. They included former superintendent of West Yorkshire Allan Charlesworth and chief inspector Brown of West Yorkshire.
Charlesworth and Brown said they could advise South Yorkshire police with dealing with the aftermath of Hillsborough by briefing them on the Popplewell inquiry.
A two-page memo revealed that the brief nature of the inquiry meant there was “severe pruning” of witnesses to “prevent duplicity”.
The disaster followed decades of stadium disasters and deaths. It took place in the year the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike ended—and football fans were comparing the way cops treated them to how the miners had suffered.
Inquiry after inquiry was set up to address ground failings. Bosses and politicians ignored the recommendations each time.
The Main Stand at Valley Parade failed to comply with the Green Guide on safety at sports grounds.
A West Yorkshire health and safety inspector visited the grounds in 1980 and wrote to the club instructing it to remove litter from under the Main Stand.
In 1981 the same officer wrote to ask the club how it would evacuate the Main Stand in under two minutes. And the West Yorkshire County Council fire authority had twice met with health and safety executives at the ground.
Both times Valley Parade’s fire risk was classed as “substantial”. Superintendent Paul Briggs told the Popplewell inquiry that he knew the Green Guide but “did not consider that it really applied”.
Chief inspector Charles Mawson told the inquiry, “I have never been briefed about evacuation from sporting venues and I have never briefed anyone.”
Club boss linked to other fires
The fire was one of at least nine fires at businesses owned by or associated with then Bradford City chairman Stafford Heginbotham in 18 years.
He put in huge insurance claims raking in what would amount to £27 million in today’s money.
It was standard procedure at the Valley Parade ground that exit doors be locked until 20 minutes before half time.
Heginbotham defended this on TV saying, “If the doors weren’t locked, people would be getting in for nothing.”
Yet for some reason this didn’t happen on the day of the fire. Heginbotham was in dire financial straits at the time of the fire.
He had learned two days before it would cost £2 million to bring the ground up to safety standards required.
This did not feature in the Popplewell inquiry. Martin said, “It’s very troubling that this was not revealed in the court.
“I struggle to see how justice can be done when Heginbotham has been dead for 20 years. It’s too little too late.”
Duty of care - regardless of security
In 1986 Martin’s mother Susan Fletcher launched a civil case to fight for justice for the dead and their families – 110 people. The police put a separate civil case for 44 injured officers.
Justice Cantley found the club – which had been warned of a fire risk – two thirds liable. West Yorkshire County Council had warned it of the risk but its fire authority didn’t follow it up. It was found one third liable.
Justice Cantley stressed that football clubs did have a duty of care, and that this duty was to ensure fans could escape quickly and conveniently – regardless of security concerns.