Fifty-six for 24/7

Martin Fletcher has devoted his life to researching the Bradford City fire, writes Mark Metcalf

The author of a new book that challenges the accepted theories on the 1985 Bradford fire disaster that killed 56 people, including four of his relatives, has heard nothing from any of the major football organisations in Britain.

“They were silent 30 years ago and so I am not shocked that none have made contact today,” says Martin Fletcher.

Bradford City fan Fletcher was 12 when, sitting in the all-wooden main stand alongside his father, brother, grandfather and uncle, he watched the final home game of the season, against Lincoln City, his side having already won promotion to Division Two.

Forty minutes into the game, smoke began to rise in the stand where he was sitting. Certain that it would be swiftly dealt with by the fire brigade, police officers ordered the section where the family were sitting to empty into the rear corridor. With the stairwell only big enough for one person at a time there was a big squeeze. When Fletcher saw flames rising and then swore he was clipped round the ear by his dad and was grateful when his uncle suggested the two children go ahead together. When his younger brother, Andrew, 11, refused, he set off on his own.

“I thought I’d be back in my seat in no time. Even when I arrived in the corridor and it was packed I had no concerns. I was even able to speak to my dad just behind me when I did start to worry.

“I had accepted death but I chose to carry on.”

“When things cleared, however, the stairwells were cut off by fire. People sought to reach the nearest turnstile exit when the fire erupted and a wall of black smoke packed with carbon monoxide killed many people.

“I had accepted death but I chose to carry on, gripping the wall before running straight through the burning stand until reaching the perimeter wall, where I was dragged over it by other fans. I was badly injured but I dashed for the safety of the terrace – within a minute the entire stand was an inferno.”
Fifty-six supporters died, including all four of his relatives, and it was only thanks to the bravery of other supporters and the police, 42 of whom were injured, that others escaped.

Despite his grief, Fletcher did well at school and, with his mother’s support, went to university and began a career as a chartered accountant.

Promotion came at a cost for Bradford City, who after winning their only major trophy, the FA Cup in 1911, largely played their football in the lower leagues of professional football. Going up meant Bradford would be required to significantly improve facilities at their Valley Parade ground. It was not before time. Parts of it had previously been condemned after inspections had highlighted dangers in the structural foundations. The 74-year-old main stand was wooden and at an earlier match that he had attended his dad had told Fletcher off for dropping a Kit-Kat wrapper down though a hole under his seat, because that was considered a fire risk. On her first visit, Martin’s mother Sue challenged her husband about what would happen if the stand caught fire.

Prior to the fire, safety concerns had been expressed by many authorities, including West Yorkshire County Council (WYCC), who in July 1984 warned the club about combustible materials beneath the main stand. WYCC had previously used legislation to close a rickety Yorkshire County Cricket stand in Bradford but failed to act against the football club, which had few resources and had been bought for just £20,000 by local businessman Stafford Heginbotham in 1983.

Heginbotham said bringing Valley Parade up to scratch for games that were certain to attract larger crowds in Division Two would cost £400,000. Seventy-five per cent of this would be covered by funds from the Football Grounds Improvement Trust (FGIT) but the remaining £100,000 was still a significant sum.

Heginbotham told the press the day after the fire that he had been planning to renovate the stand, with steel already on site. Photos proved there was no steel. The club’s attempts to claim it had not received WYCC’s correspondence collapsed. Meanwhile, Heginbotham was in financial trouble as, faced with international competition, his company Tebro Toys was on a two-day working week. It was to be wound up in January 1986 with debts that would be worth around £5 million today.

This meant that it was public money – £1.46 million from WYCC and £488,000 from FGIT – combined with fire insurance proceeds, that helped Bradford City, which contributed nothing, to rebuild the ground. The club was even left with a £200,000 surplus. In 1987, Heginbotham sold his stake in Bradford City for £450,000. He retired to Jersey as a tax exile and died in 1995.

By this time the club had lost the civil case brought against it by Martin’s mother. This followed an inquiry that was started just 13 days after the forensic search of the site was completed. The inquiry lasted five and a half days.

Following the Popplewell Inquiry, football forgot about Bradford

Previous disaster inquiries, such as in 1971 when 66 Rangers fans died at Ibrox Stadium, had been headed by a Lord Chief Justice. On this occasion a High Court judge with less seniority was appointed by the Home Secretary, Leon Brittan. The judge, Lord Popplewell, had stated before the inquiry that “blame will not be apportioned” and concluded that the cause of the fire was the dropping of a lit match, cigarette or tobacco. Following the Popplewell Inquiry, football forgot about Bradford.

The family had moved to Nottingham and Fletcher began to follow Nottingham Forest. On 15 April 1989, he was at the FA Cup semi-final between Forest and Liverpool at Hillsborough. He had to choke back the tears as he watched the unfolding disaster that resulted in 96 Liverpool football fans losing their lives after the police lost control and supporters were unable to exit the terraces because of metal fences at the front. He asked his mother: “Why didn’t they take the fences down after Bradford? Did our family die in vain?”

It wasn’t until some years later though that Fletcher had the idea for his book.

Fletcher unearthed flaws in the inquiry

“I was at the Bradford City versus Arsenal game in the Premier League in February 2000 and was with my mate Ben chatting at the Bantams Bar at the back of the Kop. We were chatting about the fire and he asked me was I happy at what Popplewell had concluded. I said: ‘That’s just the way things were back then.’ Although he said nothing the look he gave me made me realise he knew I didn’t believe what I was saying.”

Fletcher unearthed flaws in the inquiry and inconsistencies between what Heginbotham and Bradford City told the press and authorities.

Despite Popplewell’s explanation that the fire was probably caused by a lit match or cigarette, no clear evidence or testimony was presented that anyone was smoking. The Timber Research and Development Association, the one independent body that had previously inspected the main stand, submitted evidence to the inquiry that disputed whether a “small source of ignition on its own… could have been the primary cause of the ignition of the timber structure”.

Fletcher has also revealed that Heginbotham had experienced many more fires at premises belonging to him. Valley Parade was one of nine. All followed a similar pattern in that once started they spread quickly, produced an incredible amount of toxic smoke and devastation, and all caught the fire brigades unaware. Altogether, Heginbotham received today’s equivalent of £27 million in insurance payments.
Journalist Paul Foot, now dead, had first raised the issue of fires at Heginbotham’s businesses in 1985 but no authorities, including major football bodies, felt this was worth investigation.

So has anyone contacted Fletcher about the contents of his book? “None of them. It’s no surprise as they also said little 30 years ago. Only Andy Burnham MP, who did a lot of good work establishing the facts about Hillsborough, has called for a fresh investigation after stating the 1985 inquiry was conducted in undue haste.”

But if the authorities are staying shy of Fletcher, ordinary people are not. “Fresh information has been sent to me that needs examining. I’d welcome more. Readers of the book have been very supportive, although there is a handful of Bradford City fans, some of whom rushed to condemn it on Amazon and message boards on the day it came out – when they clearly could not have read it – who are claiming to speak for everyone in Bradford. Clearly they don’t.

“Friends tell me that many local people support what I have done as there is dissatisfaction about the Popplewell Inquiry. This has led to me questioning whether I am wrong in the book to state I am not in favour of a fresh inquiry. I am keeping my options open.”

“I have set out the facts and don’t make any allegations.”

Fletcher does not regret spending so much time researching and writing his book – even though he has often gone without paid work to do so. “It has been tough. I’d say that for the vast majority of my last nine years my weekends and evenings have been taken up by it.

“It has been painful – very painful – and I have had weight fluctuations of 50-60lbs on several occasions and seven or eight seizures. Last time I was unconscious for half an hour. I have almost killed myself, literally, writing this book.

“It has come as a relief to have finally had the book published. I have set out the facts and don’t make any allegations. Readers can make up their own minds.”

The book is dedicated to the author’s mother “for showing me the light and making me fight – still smiling.” Fletcher admits he was worried when he presented her with an advanced copy of it, especially as it discusses many family issues. He needn’t have worried – she told him it was “perfect”.

Fifty-Six: The Story of the Bradford Fire by Martin Fletcher is out now (Bloomsbury Sport). Photo: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

If you liked this article, we think you’ll enjoy these:

Interact: Responses to Fifty-six for 24/7

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.