I shall always remember taking one telephone call in May of 1985. A TV colleague asked me to rush to a football ground that was just a couple of miles from my home in Bingley, West Yorkshire. I was off duty that weekend and not working for either Yorkshire Television sport or the regional news programme, ‘Calendar.’
I could see the smoke billowing above the city from my attic window.
I could have gone to Valley Parade that day and, as I so often did, sit on the TV gantry with friend, colleague and football commentator John Helm. I chose not to for reasons I can no longer recall. I knew that my then brother in law was at the game with his children. And, having been a sports researcher and producer at Yorkshire TV for five years; I knew the players and management of both teams that day. Bradford City and Lincoln City.
You have to remember that in 1985 there were no mobile telephones. News coverage was on film. Coverage of the game itself was on old ’2 inch’ videotape. My colleague told me to turn my TV on. He didn’t need to. I was already watching as the national ITV news cut live to the Yorkshire TV pictures. I heard the words of John Helm and I knew the situation at Valley Parade was serious. That was before the flames destroyed the wooden structure of a stand I knew well.
I shall always recall the words of John as one victim of the fire walked from the stand and in front of the terraces. The man was smiling and seemed to be OK. He was not. In the coming weeks I learned more about spontaneous combustion than I ever wished to know. John Helm was so sensitive in his commentary that day. His words: “Oh the poor man, the poor man” have stayed with me ever since. In those pre-9/11 days, live TV commentary on a disaster such as this could only be compared with the famous commentary of the Hinderburg disaster in 1937.
John went to commentate on a football match. On a day of celebration as Bradford City had already been promoted. It should have been a pleasant day at the office. Instead it became the stuff of nightmares. Literally.
I shall never forget what I saw at the back of the main stand at Valley Parade that day. I would like to. I have tried to. I wish I could erase those pictures from my mind. I threw away all the clothes that I wore that day. I could not live with the smell of my clothing.
I shall never forget the bravery of the fire crews. The incredible efforts of the paramedics. The heroics displayed by members of the public who saved, or tried to save, others. In the days, weeks and months after the Bradford City fire I got to know well many of the survivors. I was with them as they underwent medical treatment. Skin graft after skin graft.
The work I saw at hospitals such as St. Lukes and the General Infirmary made me realise that my work in TV was so utterly irrelevant. Surgeon David Sharpe was rightly honoured for his remarkable and pioneering work that made such a difference to the lives of those who got out of the fire. But it was the work of the nurses, auxillary nurses, assistants and doctors that left me in awe. They were seeing the same horrific injuries as I was. Only they knew what to do. I didn’t.
I demanded from my bosses that I sat through every day of the subsequent inquiry into the fire. Justice Oliver Popplewell did a wonderful job. Judge Popplewell did much to drag football in the UK into the 20th century. It was to the eternal shame of those who ran football clubs in those days that the lessons of Bradford City were not learned immediately.
Ten years after the fire, and with safety at football grounds uppermost in my mind following the disasters at Bradford, Heysel and Hillsborough; I researched and produced a documentary for the ‘Dispatches’ strand. My film, commissioned by Channel 4, led me to many grounds where they still had wooden stands. Where those who ran the clubs stored combustible materials under those stands. And where I saw people smoking in those stands.
They included the then safety officer at one top flight club, who chain smoked in a wooden stand while proudly showing me the exit routes. He also allowed match day stewards to smoke in that stand. We also filmed Jimmy Hill, then still a prominent figure at Fulham, smoking in a wooden stand at a Craven Cottage match. A stand under which furniture was stacked high.
Eventually, football got the message. Namely that the deaths of 56 people in Bradford on May 11th 1985 should not be in vain.
Broadcaster Gabby Logan (nee Yorath) was their that day as a teenager. Her dad, the former Leeds Utd player Terry, was part of the Bradford City management team. Through her present day work on television and radio, Gabby does her utmost to ensure this particular tragedy is not forgotten. I shall do likewise.
In the days after the Bradford City fire I met a mother and her one remaining child. Three generations of the Fletcher family died that day. I think what happened to that family touched me more than any other. At the subsequent memorial service I had to be on a crane high above the burnt out stadium. I sang along with the likes of Abide with Me and You’ll Never Walk Alone. Along with the cameraman, I wept buckets.
I’m pleased to still be in touch with one survivor of the fire. A boy then, very much a man now.
I shall forever remember the football disaster which, because of the tragic loss of life that followed at Heysel and Hillsborough, is always in danger of being forgotten.