Thirty-four years ago yesterday I was on duty at the Bradford City football match when a fire broke out in the main stand. Fifty-six people lost their lives. The following is the chapter from my book Dodge City a Coppers Tale:
11th May 1985 is a day etched in my memory and it will never go away. What transpired that day remains as real and vivid today as if it had just happened. I was only 24 years of age.
I was on daytime football duty to go to the last game of the season at Bradford City. We got to the gym in the station as normal for the briefing. We were given something to eat and were transported in vans to the ground. I and others from my shift were part of the visitors supporters stand, ‘Scratching End’ detachment.
The ‘Scratching End’ was not that full of the visitors from Lincoln City. The ground though was very full. There were 11,000 people in the ground – twice that of the normal game attendance. Bradford City had won the Championship of the League, and therefore promotion for the first time in years. The team were presented with the trophy and everyone was euphoric. The game kicked off late because of the presentation.
The first thing I can remember was seeing a wisp of smoke from the far end of the main stand in block G. People began to move away from it. There was becoming a big space now amongst the fans and then I saw flames. The radio was going ten to the dozen about the stand being on fire. The supporters in the Scratching End, without knowing what was to come, chanted: “Burn you bastards! Burn!”
The game was stopped as people were coming out of the stand onto the pitch side. There were 3,000 people in the 77-year-old wooden stand. The flames were clearly visible now and people were panicking. Most of the players left the pitch. We were told by radio to go the main stand. I went across the pitch and started to move people away. People were leaving the ground via the big gates at the end of the ground. There was still a lot of chanting.
The wall between the main stand and the pitch was about five foot high. The gaps in the wall to allow access to the pitch were at either end. People were pushing and shoving to get out of these gaps as the fire took hold. I climbed onto the wall opposite my mate and we started lifting people up and dropping them over onto the pitch.
I suddenly felt very hot and I looked up at the roof and saw a wall of flames go straight across the roof at a fast speed. It went with a loud roaring and crackling sound. People were screaming now and running towards the wall and jumping over it on their own. It was a mass panic. People were falling over the wall onto the pitch and throwing themselves over onto other people. Some of the players were there helping pull people away from the stand and this sudden incredible heat.
We then felt hot Bitumen falling onto us from the roof. It was hot and stung us. My hair was burning. The heat became unbearable and we had to jump off the wall onto the pitch. It was total chaos. People were running around crying and shouting. A lot of them were still just milling around. I went back towards the pitch and started running with people out of the heat away from the stand. The smoke was thick, black, and though we did not know it at the time, toxic.
The fire had now fully taken hold of the stand and it was well alight. The noise was immense. There were people still stuck in the stand. I turned around and kept running towards the stand using my helmet as a shield between myself and the heat. I was grabbing people and pulling them out.
As you ran into the wall of heat haze it sucked your breath out. It was immense, that heat, and it made me panic. Each time we ran back into this wall of heat I felt hotter. My coat, which was a Police issue anorak, melted at the front. I took it off and used it to douse people who had caught fire. They were being dragged along the floor ablaze. We would mass onto them and use our coats to dowse them out; it was just horrific.
It got so that we just could not go back into the heat. It was too much and you lost your breath straight away, which left your chest and throat burning.
One officer did go back in and his hair set on fire. He turned around and walked back, he could not run because of the heat. He was putting his hair out with his hands. I can still see in my mind his hands with skin dropping off them and his hair melted to his head. The radio was screaming at us not to go back in and move back. The ground by now was virtually empty.
We were stood just outside this wall of heat near to the end of the stand where the changing rooms and offices were. There would be about six of us. We were beckoning this very old man to keep walking towards us, but he couldn’t, he was only about 20 feet from us. The heat was so intense it stopped you moving. He was starting to smoulder. We could see smoke starting to come from his shoulders and his hair and then he just burst into flames. We just ran in, grabbed him, and dragged him out. We put him out using our coats.
You could see a few people still in the stand and they could not move. They just became engulfed in flames. It was like something out of a film. We ignored the radio and kept trying to get in to get to people. Inspector Slocombe eventually told us to stop.
The fire brigade got into the ground and started to put out the fire. By this time the ground had been cleared of supporters and it was eerily quiet. All you could hear was the water from the fire hoses. I was sat with others in the centre circle of the pitch. Some of the policewomen were collecting discarded handbags and shoes. We were brought out crates of milk. I don’t know where they came from but they were very welcome, I drank loads of milk. We were all very shell-shocked and very little conversation was taking place.
[To be continued tomorrow]