Posted 11 May 2005 - 04:14 PM
This very moving story was published in today's Guardian:
Twenty years ago Martin Fletcher travelled to watch Bradford City with four members of his family. He would be the only one to return home alive. On the anniversary of the Valley Parade fire, he recalls the horror of that day and the lessons that were ignored - so that, four years later, he found himself witnessing another disaster, at Hillsborough
Wednesday May 11, 2005
On my 20th annual pilgrimage to Bradford today it's impossible to recall the excitement with which I woke as a 12 year old in 1985 to head north from Nottingham with my father, John, 34, and brother Andrew, 11, to watch Bradford City's unlikely coronation as Third Division champions, after 48 years in the Football League's lower reaches. We went with my uncle, Peter, 32, and grandfather, Eddie, 63. I would be the only one to return home. As the crowd gathered at Valley Parade that May 11, the cloudy weather couldn't dampen a sunny atmosphere. The players received their trophy before the match and we cheered them on a lap of honour. They returned the favour at kick-off, each player holding up a board with the message "THANK YOU FANS". On this day of great expectation supporters spoke of the challenges promotion would bring. It would be a future 56 would not see.
It was 40 minutes into the game that smoke first began to rise from one end of the all-wooden main stand where my family and I were sitting. Uncertain whether it was a fire, but convinced that the fire brigade would control it if it were, junior police officers ordered the section cleared into the stand's rear corridor, the only empty area in the stand. The 80 spectators in our section began to empty back as quickly as a stairwell just one man wide would allow.
Just as we were about to move I looked down and saw large tips of flame dance beneath a crack in the stand. As a child might, I swore and Dad clipped my ear. I felt indignant, and when my uncle suggested the kids went ahead together, I agreed immediately it was a good idea.
I expected to return to my seat a few minutes later. Nobody anticipated having to escape a fire that was still to emerge from beneath the stand. Fans, expecting to be told to come back, massed in the area nearest their seats. When I arrived in the corridor to find a wall of people I was not concerned. I assumed that it would clear. Only it did not.
At this point, the teams were still playing and it was only the attentions of a linesman that brought the game to a halt. By now, flames had cut off the stairwell I had walked up, making it impassable. The nearest accessible stairwells, 9 and 13 metres away, were full of people. More spectators entered the corridor trying to make their way out and we became trapped at the end nearest the fire. Any attempts to have cleared the gridlock would have resulted in a deadly stampede.
Unable to move and unaware of what was happening, I eventually cried for dad. The corridor was so calm, he not only heard me, but I could turn to speak with him and he calmed my fears. Embarrassed by my behaviour, I apologised to the man beside me. He smiled back, pensively. At ease, I stood, having turned my back on my family, with no idea I had seen them alive for the last time.
Suddenly the gridlock cleared. But at the same time both stairwells became cut off by fire and we headed towards the exit. Brisk walking turned to running as people tried to reach the nearest exit still some 25 metres away. I was at the front of the group heading for the turnstiles. Now, 75 seconds after the evacuation began, the fire erupted. In an instant, clear air was replaced by an impenetrable wall of black smoke, laced with carbon monoxide. It brought with it instant death, killing 19 by the turnstiles before they reached an exit, 18 by the nearest exit and six more beyond it.
An eerie silence accompanied the blinding smoke, I could only sniff at my surroundings. My consciousness was painlessly crushed and I accepted death. It is almost impossible to explain what happened next, but there was a flash of light, a sudden illuminated outline of an individual appeared before me. Just as quickly, it disappeared, but I chose to carry on, feeling my way along the wall of the block. I made my way alone and, with the exception of a brief solitary cry, the silence was unbroken. There were no flames in the corridor, but when I reached the stairwell I was met by an advancing wall of fire that had enveloped the seating. I ran straight through the burning stand and reached the perimeter wall. I was dragged over it by fellow fans. Sprawled on the pitch, I got up and dashed for the safety of the terrace opposite. Within a minute the entire stand was ablaze.
In escaping one hell I entered another. Initially I was told what everybody believed, that everyone had escaped the fire. It was not until my family were identified two days later that anyone dared correct this impression. They had all perished in the corridor. Five years of sporadic, invasive press attention followed ("the bravest boy in Britain" the tabloids called me), robbing me of my adolescent years.
By the time I left for Warwick University it seemed I had become defined by this single May day. There I began to move beyond that day and developed skills that eventually led me to study the legislation, transcripts and statements at the heart of the Bradford fire.
It was the deaths of 66 supporters at Ibrox in 1971 that led to the introduction of the first piece of legislation that offered protection to sports fans, the 1975 Safety of Sports Grounds Act. Government staggered the legislation's introduction; international and First Division grounds were designated first, with lower division grounds to follow later. Only they did not. After lobbying, the Thatcher government indefinitely postponed further designation on the basis that lower division grounds were not attended in sufficient numbers even though any proposal that public safety legislation be abandoned at other public buildings that held thousands less would have brought uproar.
The unimplemented regulations anticipated stand fires. They stated that wooden stands should be capable of evacuation in 2½ minutes, that all combustible material be removed from beneath them, any voids that caused such an accumulation be sealed, and that no one should be more than 30 metres from the nearest manned exit. None of these conditions were met at Bradford.
On June 5 1985, three days after we held a memorial service service for Dad and Andrew, the public inquiry opened into the disaster. It was so soon after the tragedy that most of the victims' relatives felt unable to attend. The inquiry's conclusions, based on just five days' hearings, provided the superficial flawed answers that all craved.
West Yorkshire's chief fire officer, Graham Karran, told the inquiry it was simply "inexplicable" that his team of fire prevention officers had never inspected the stand. Only they had inspected the clubhouse beside the stand in licensing it, while the brigade regularly visited the ground to water the pitch, undertake exercises and were even due to play a club's former XI there.
The fire authority knew of the stand's dangers. It held meetings about the ground with the Health and Safety Executive , which twice rated "fire" as a "substantial" risk . Fire prevention officer, Neville Byrom, received a detailed letter from a council engineer that warned, "The timber construction is a fire hazard". Yet the fire authority did nothing.
As it wrote to the club, the Executive had "Emergency powers in relation to any sports ground", under the Safety at Sports Grounds and Fire Precautions Act. Claims that conditions were not serious enough to warrant their exercise were rejected at civil trial. Had the fire authority discharged its statutory duty the disaster would never have happened. Instead, in a gross dereliction of duty, it turned a blind eye to its now realised potential as a death trap.
What Bradford did prove was that the pitch provided the only emergency escape route. Had the 2,000 terrace spaces that flanked the stand's 2,000 seats been fenced, a death toll of 9/11 proportion would have resulted. As it was, only a gap in the Kop terrace fence adjacent to the stand allowed hundreds to escape. Both the FA chairman and Football League secretary immediately suggested a review of fencing policy. Home secretary Leon Britton promised parliament, "There is no question of simply putting up a fence which would create a trap".
Only, on April 15 1989, as a Nottingham Forest fan I was at Hillsborough. From the Kop terrace, opposite the Leppings Lane end, I watched 96 die within such a trap, because the local authority had not held inspections, allowing unauthorised crush barrier modifications to go overlooked. I heard the sirens again and I clutched the fence beside me as fans tended and carried the dead. On returning home I became so distraught that nothing had clearly been learned that I hyper-ventilated. That weekend, the press began to doorstep my house again.
Unlike in Belgium where the government fell after the Heysel stadium disaster, there would be no ministerial fall-out after England's twin disasters. Although both had clear grounds for gross negligence the authorities never considered manslaughter charges. If such failures carry no penalties how can we expect their lessons to be learned?
I fear complacency has returned. This year, I visited the ground at London Wasps rugby club where a locked gate meant my nearest available exit was a congested 50 metres away. I worry how effective current evacuation policies are in an age of global terrorism, how limited access points around new stadiums would cope if the unforeseeable happened and how clubs will cope when today's stadiums eventually crumble at end of their natural life. Would our public authorities again gamble on forcing yet more innocents on the pilgrimage I make today?