Bradford City fire: Colin Brazier recalls horrific scenes 37 years on from stadium disaster
Thirty-seven years ago today I went to see a football match with my extended family of cousins and uncles. It was the final fixture of the 1985 season and the home team, Bradford City, were playing Lincoln
The ground, Valley Parade, was packed to the rafters. Bradford had already won promotion and the feeling was joyful – one big party.
I was standing in an area known as the Paddock, under the roof of the main grandstand, but where movement was freer – which was, as I’ll explain, about to become important.
Because, just before half-time smoke started to rise from seating a couple of hundred yards to my left. At first, nobody paid much attention. Probably just a smoke bomb.
But the smoke didn’t disappear. In fact, it thickened and then, incomprehensibly, there was the first sight of a flame. My memories of what happened next are sketchy, but I remember with reliable clarity the moment – and it must happen whenever catastrophe strikes a large crowd – when frivolity turns to panic. When grown-men stop making jokes and start to flee for their lives.
A wall of people started moving towards us, climbing over seats, tripping-up, calling out for loved ones. The fire spread with a speed that almost defies explanation. But there was an explanation.
Beneath the grandstand floorboards, was the accumulated rubbish of decades; old newspapers, food wrappings, empty paint pots. All it took to set the whole thing ablaze was probably a discarded cigarette. And once it took hold, there was no stopping it. The roof contained and recycled the heat in a way that obeyed, I’m sure, the rules of physics, but at the time seemed nothing short of demonic.
Some spectators headed to the top of the stand, thinking that, since that was the way they came in through the turn-stiles; that would be where they could get out.
However, the gates were locked and dozens perished in that gloomy corridor at the back of the grandstand where temperatures, at one point, reached a thousand degrees.
The rest of us headed down towards the pitch where the playing area and grandstand were only separated by a 4ft high wall. Thank God that’s all it was. Had the fire happened at one of the grounds were fences had been put-up to stop pitch invasions, we would have been trapped.
Running towards the centre circle I looked back to see an elderly man gazing out from the centre of the grandstand, standing stock-still, just before blazing timbers fell and entombed him.
I also have a strong memory of noise. The sheer, deafening din of a huge fire. You had to shout to be heard. TV pictures of the Valley Parade disaster communicate many things - terror, loss, shock - but they never get across the sheer volume of that hideous inferno.
For a couple of minutes I, in common with thousands of others, moved around the pitch, shouting out for loved ones or gazing – in bewilderment - at the grandstand.
I shuffled towards the goal-posts at the Bradford End, for no better reason than that was the way towards the town-centre, and my bus home.
Between the posts lay the body of a middle-aged woman, about whom I remember nothing more than the way her clothing had warped like burned plastic.
As I headed into town to catch my bus, I noticed an old man in front of me with terrible burns – third-degree surely - to the back of his neck and ears.
He was walking as if oblivious to his injuries; perhaps he was in shock. But over the years, I’ve called him to mind. This pensioner in his tweed overcoat and cap, who didn’t want to make a fuss. He was sort of emblematic of a muted, stoical, reaction to the disaster. Different, I think, to what would happen now in our supercharged world of smartphones, social media and emotional incontinence.
That said, there was grumbling in the city when the inquiry into the cause of the blaze was lumped-in with a riot which happened on the same day, involving Leeds United fans in Birmingham. That was insensitive.
But somehow, outside of the city and football fans, the Bradford fire slid from public consciousness. There was a memorial service today, the first since Covid, and many of those who stood in attendance weren’t born in 1985 and would struggle to understand how, in a world where stadia are now highly-regulated and policed by an army of stewards, 56 people could set out for a day at the football...and not come home.
But the past, as they say, is another country. They do things differently there.
That’s the Brazier Angle.