Today is the 31st anniversary of a day I – a then long time resident of Bingley and researcher on the Yorkshire Television news programme ‘Calendar’ – will never forget, writes Vernon Grant.
May 11th 1985 was the day 56 people lost their lives in a fire at Valley Parade – home of Bradford City.
They included five members of the Fletcher family. Former Bradford residents, and until shortly before that year season ticket holders at Valley Parade, work had taken Martin’s father, John, south to Nottingham. But four generations of the Fletcher family made the journey to Bradford for what was meant to be a day of celebration.
Martin’s dad, his uncle Peter, grandfather Eddie and younger brother Andrew all died in the blaze as smoke and flames engulfed the wooden stand at Bradford. They and many others were trying to escape the fire at the back of the stand – via the same gates they had entered the ground. It was the final match of the season and City had been promoted to a higher league.
Martin Fletcher, then aged 12, survived. He got out, just, by following others to the front of the stand and on to the pitch.
Decades later Martin began a long and exhaustive process of research into every aspect of the fire, the financial condition of Bradford City football club at that time and also into the business background of the then Chairman, Stafford Heginbotham.
When he was aged 21, sat in a car outside the new look Valley Parade, his mother Susan said to him: ‘Martin, you’re an adult now, so I’ll tell you. But I’m warning you, you may not want to know. Well, you know it wasn’t Stafford Heginbotham’s first fire, don’t you? So it was all rather convenient, don’t you think, that the stand burnt down on that of all days?’
Martin replied: ‘Er, what are you saying… that it wasn’t an accident?’
His mother replied: ‘No, Martin, I never believed it was an accident and I never will. I don’t think Stafford intended for people to die…but people did. All because he went back to the one thing he knew best that would get him out of trouble.’
In 2000 his friend Ben also queried the outcome of the Popplewell inquiry. He asked Martin if he was satisfied with the conclusion that the fire was an accident started by a discarded match or cigarette.
Martin replied to Ben: “Of course. Why not?
Ben shot Martin a look that unnerved him before replying: ‘Come on, you’re smarter than that.’
The seeds of doubt sewn by his mum and mate, Martin began to wonder if he had been naive in readily accepting the conclusions of the Justice Popplewell inquiry.
The result is a thoroughly researched book. 56 The Story of the Bradford Fire. It is a compelling read and I salute Martin for his dedication, diligence and determination.
I lived in Bradford for many years, but a ten minute drive from Valley Parade. I know that there are City fans who think Martin is barking up the wrong tree, that he’s obsessed with finding a smoking gun rather than a lit cigarette or match. Some have abused him on social media. Frankly, that’s out of order.
The majority of City fans believe the fire was nothing more than a tragic accident and that Martin should let the matter go. They say he’s a conspiracy theorist who has come to the wrong conclusion. But if only they would read this book, as I have twice, they would realise that he has NOT come to any conclusions.
There are people in Bradford who have been supportive. They agree there is sufficient doubt about how the fire started and they have applauded him for giving up so much of his adult life in an effort to discover the truth.
Personally, I believe there are questions to be answered about the timeline of events on that day, about where certain employees of the club positioned themselves in the ground on May 11th 1985, about the financial position of the club that season and – which was no secret in West Yorkshire at the time – about how many previous businesses connected to then Chairman Stafford Heginbotham had gone up in smoke.
Recently, the public have rejoiced that the 27 year long campaign by the Hillsborough families has – at last – reached a point where the real truth of what happened at Hillsborough in 1989 is known.
Let’s not forget that in 2011 Justice Popplewell said the following about those from Liverpool who campaigned tirelessly for the truth. He said: “The citizens of Bradford behaved with quiet dignity and great courage. They did not harbour conspiracy theories. They did not seek endless further inquiries. They buried their dead, comforted the bereaved and succoured the injured. They organised a sensible compensation scheme and moved on. Is there, perhaps, a lesson there for the Hillsborough campaigners?”
Take a moment and read those comments again. This from a member of the judiciary who oversaw a hastily arranged and short lived inquiry into the Bradford City fire.
Those comments not only infuriated the families of those who were crushed to death in Sheffield. They annoyed Martin Fletcher.
Now I am no conspiracy theorist. Man did land on the moon in 1969. George Bush was not the mastermind of the 9/11 bombings. England’s third goal in the 1966 World Cup did cross the line – well, OK, there may be a doubt about the last one.
I sat through every minute of the Popplewell inquiry into the Bradford City fire. I was a young programme researcher at Yorkshire TV. Back then I saw no reason to query the conclusion that the fire was started by a discarded match or cigarette. After all, rubbish dating back decades was found under the wooden stand.
But, a bit like when the country fell for the lies the then government, South Yorkshire Police, The Sun and other newspapers published immediately after the Hillsborough disaster, I do wonder if I and many others were naive at the time. Whether we too readily accepted the conclusions reached in the official report into the Bradford City fire.
I believe there should be a new inquiry. It’s unlikely to happen. Over thirty years have passed and, despite the fact we have seen how the country was lied to regarding the cause of the Hillsborough disaster, there seems no appetite to look again into the cause of the Bradford City fire.
Having read Martin’s book, the only conclusion I have come to is that there are reasons to doubt that the Bradford City fire was an accident. That’s my opinion and, like those in Liverpool who never accepted the word accident as the explanation of how their loved ones died at Hillsborough; I am entitled to express my doubts.
At the time of writing, on May 11th 2016, Martin Fletcher is still awaiting the outcome of the Independent Police Complaints Commission report into the actions of West Yorkshire Police thirty one years earlier.
Until the IPCC has published its findings I cannot publish my at length, sit down interview with Martin Fletcher about his own research into the fire, which forms the second part of his must read book. Hopefully that IPCC report will be released soon.
In the meantime, here is a much shorter conversation I had with Martin at the noisy staging of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award. In this interview I ask him how he escaped the fire and, firstly, how he came to support Bradford City.