It was supposed to a festive occasion at Valley Parade, as Bradford City FC were celebrating their first championship title since 1929, even if it was the old 3rd Division,on the afternoon of May 11th, 1985, prior to a league match with Lincoln City, and the championship trophy was paraded in front of the fans.
There were dancing girls, and for once the main old stand, the only one with seating. nicknamed 'The Sopworth Camel', would be full with 4,000 fans. Walking down the steep Valley Parade from Manningham Lane, the main road, to this main stand, you pay your money at the turnstiles, and on my only visit 20 years before that date found a dark and confusing entrance way, from which you walked directly down to your seat. We had gone to watch a League Cup match vs Manchester United, and on that memorable day the home team won. What I do remember is that peering down below the wooden seats, there were gaps in the floorboards filled with paper and other rubbish from decades of neglect. The roof of this stand was very low, and had patches, and was liable to leaking. Toilet facilities for men were primitive, and non-existent for women.
Forward to May, 1985 and just before half-time some spectators noticed the heat below their feet. Within 4 minutes, in front of the T.V. cameras from Yorkshire Television, the flames consummed the old stand, the heat reflected down as the flames reached the roof, and 56 fans were burned to death, as they tried, and failed to escape. The stand was in three parts. the top third had wooden seats and floor, the section immediately below had plastic seats riveted into concrete, and the lower third was a standing only terrace. It proved almost impossible to escape upwards through the back of the stand, since the exits were locked and the turnstiles only operated for getting in, not out, and in the smoke, there was little chance to breath or see in front of you. To go downwards there was a 6 foot drop to the next section, and to get onto the playing pitch was a five foot high wall. Most did escape that way, but many had clothes melt into their skin, and as they tried to cover their heads with their hands , the reflected heat from the roof inflicted terrible burns.
Before the match the major concern of the police was possible fan hooliganism, crowd control, not crowd safety. In fact, on that same afternoon at that very hour, a young 15 year old fan was killed during a match at St. Andrews, Birmingham between Birmingham City and Leeds United. Leeds is only 10 miles from Bradford and its fans were notorious. The police tried in vain to order fans to escape downwards rather than up through the back of the stand, and some brave police had their uniforms melt from the heat. P C Glynn Leasing and a spectator Dave Hustler were among those cited for bravery that afternoon, as well as Surgeon Dave Sharpe for his later work on burns victims.
Two years earlier the club had gone into receivership due to massive debts, and a new company had been formed. Each city had to licence stadiums but letters to the club had not been dealt with. It was supposed to be able to empty the 4,000 seat stand in only 2 1/2 minutes , which was obviously impossible in the best of conditions. Fans, old and young had to be hauled up over the 5 foot wall onto the grass, which was burned about 30 yards out from the fire. Ambulances and private cars soon overwhelmed the staff at the Bradford Royal Infirmary in the centre of town, a mile away.
Recently I revisited Bradford and the stadium. It is completely new with all seater stands on all four sides. Within 48 hours of the fire, Judge Lord Poppelwell had been appointed to head an enquiry at the magnificent Town Hall. Suprisingly the chief executive of the club, admitted the wrongs of the club, but there was little malice from the public, and nobody was punished. Peter Jackson was the 23 year old team captain at the time, and now is manager of nearby Huddersfield Town. He is 6' 3" tall. He and the players had escaped the stadium to a nearby pub, where they watches the televised scene. He had found out that his family was safe and returned to the club house to find his clothes, since he was still in his playing uniform. He found his club blazer but his little daughter's plastic cup had melted. He eventually found his way to the the BRI and helped comfort families and victims that were still alive.
Later he would help send a couple of players to each funeral, since he thought it would be too traumatic for them to go alone. In Millenium Square, outside the Town Hall I visited a 4 foot high sculpture by Joaquim Regner, presented by the City of Hamm, Germany a sister city of Bradford. On the day of the fire there had been a visiting delegation at the stadium from Hamm, all of whom escaped without injury, led by Mrs Joyce Regner, a former local girl who had gone to Germany and married there. I thought the sculpture, on a plinth was too small, but the nearby tourist office explained that it was that height so that children could read the inscriptions and get the meaning. There are 3 figures crouching over in a broken circle over a doomed stadium, with the names of all the victims mingled in and around the figures who reach out physically and spiritually.
The Bradford stadium disaster was not the first, nor the last such disaster and a few weeks later, on May 29th the Heysel Stadium in Brussels, Belgium would be in the news. In 1947 at Burden Park, Bolton Wanderers had played Stoke City with Stan Matthews. Over 65,000 had officially gained entry, but in those days there was no stewarding and no counting. Many had broken fence at the back of the giant terrace behind one goal and 33 fans were crushed to death. Burnden Park is depicted in my favourite painting, GOING TO THE MATCH, by L S Lowry, which is in The Lowry Gallery, close to Old Trafford, Manchester. It is actually owned by the Professional Footballers Association. Now Bolton play in a state of the art Reebok Stadium.
Much earlier,in Lima, Peru on My 24th 1964, 300 died near the end of Peru vs Argentina as fans leaving the stadium turned round because of a late goal. I was in the same stadium over 20 years later at an evening match when the lights went out, and everyone , including me, dived for cover. There were thoughts of a terrorist attack, but it was just an electrical problem.
On January 2nd, 1971 at Rangers FC's home, Ibrox Park ,66 fans were crushed to death on Stairway 13, the same stairway where 2 fans had died 10 years previously. On 5th April, 1902, again at Ibrox 25 died and 537 were injured, minutes into a Scotland vs England international in front of 80,000 fans. A wooden stand collapsed, hurling many fans 45 feet to the ground. Incredibly the match was only held up for 15 minutes and the match ended 1-1.
In Brussels in 1985 Liverpool, the holders were to play Juventus of Turin in the European Cup Final at a decrepid stadium in front of 60,000 fans, Besides seats in the stands, each club was assigned an end standing terrace split into 3 sections. At the Italian end one of the sections was designated for 'neutral' Belgian fans, against the views of both clubs. Liverpool had beaten AC Roma in the 2004 Final in Rome's Stadio Olympico and so there was still some ill feeling. Many Italians, and Liverpool fans obtained tickets in the 'neutral' zone. There was a temporary wire fence between that section and the Juventus section. Liverpool fans attacked, a wall collapsed and 33 fans were crushed to death and 400 injured.
UEFA and Belgian authorities ordered the game to be played after an hours delay and Juventus won 1-0 from a late penalty by Michel Platini. The trophy was awarded in their locker room, but they decided to go out and parade it in front of their fans. Twenty seven fans were arrested and later extradited to Belgium and charged with manslaughter, 60% from Liverpool and the rest from other parts of Britain, in a 5 months trial. They were given 3 year sentences. There was NO official enquiry, but Gunther Schneider, the UEFA observer that day stated "Only the Liverpool fans were responsible".
The Heysel was used for another ten years for other sports than soccer. It was then demolished and replaced with the King Boudoin Stadium, used in the 2000 European Championships. Last year a $300,000 sun dial memorial was built. For English clubs there was no escape. All English clubs were banned from European competitions for 5 years, which affected 16 clubs in those 3 competitions. Liverpool were banned for 10, later reduced to 6 years. Having won 4 European Cups in 6 years it took them 20 years, until a memorable day in Istanbul in 2005 to win the major trophy, now the Champions League, for the 5th time. In 2005 in the quarter final at Anfield, their home stadium, they played Juventus in the first, and home leg. The giant Kop, now all seater, showed a red and white card display spelling AMICIZIA- FRIENDSHIP. They won the return leg in Turin 2-1 and went on to that amazing come from behind victory in Turkey.
Hillsborough Stadium, home of Sheffield Wednesday had been a favoured venue for F. A. Cup semi-finals. In 1989 it was chosen for Nottingham Forest vs Liverpool and the Liverpool fans were assigned the north end of the ground, the Leppings Lane end. The front half was a standing terrace with metal crush barriers, and divided into sections, so that fans could be comfortable. At the front, because of a fear that fans would invade the pitch, was a metal fence, with a narrow, locked gate. Fans were arriving late because of traffic conditions, and with the help of mounted police were ushered to the turnstiles. When they went through the signs were confusing and too many entered the central paddock. There was a big crush, and despite pleas from the front to unlock the gate to the fence, many were crushed to death and 96 died. Above that standing area was a stand with seats, and photos show fans being pulled into it,about 10 feet above, but it was too little, too late.
An enquiry was held and the famous Taylor Report published. In those days police were drafted from miles around, from different forces for crowd control and a little for safety but many were not adequatley knowledgable on these stadiums. The fans blamed the police who defended themselves very vigorously. Before cell phones it took a long time for families to find out their loved ones fates. The stadium gymnasium was used as a morgue. Many books have been written including an excellant account by Rogan Taylor of Liverpool University, and even television documentaries. The findings of the Taylor Report called for sweeping changes, most of which have been implemented. All seater stadiums, yearly inspections and safety certificates from local authorities, professional stewards who know their own stadium intimitely, no fences, replaced by brightly uniformed stewards every few yards, with keys to any doors and entrances.
Instant communications with cell phones, CCTV sweeping all sections of the stadium for fan SAFETY as well as control. Clean food and drink concessions, with steel safety barriers than can contain any fire, adequate rest rooms for both sexes, adequate areas and rest rooms for those in wheel chairs, banning orders for trouble makers, delaying kick-off when there are traffic delays to ensure fans don't rush the entrances, and the chief safety officer on duty 90 minutes before access entrances are open, so many paramedics depending upon attendance etc.
Every year on the anniversary of Hillsborough, a memorial service is held on the now all seater Kop end at Anfield, while outside the stadium at the other end is a much visited black granite memorial with an iternal flame. The Liverpool FC 'anthem' YOU'LL NEVER WALK ALONE is sung. The tune comes from CAROUSEL, the musical by Rodgers and Hammerstein, and recorded by local hero Gerry Marsden of Gerry and the Pacemakers, who also recorded Ferry Across the Mersey.THE KOP is named, as it is at other English stadiums, after The Battle of Spion Kop, a hill that was taken and retaken a number of times by both side in the British-Boer War in the late 19th Century in South Africa.
African has not escaped tragedies. in Orkney, South Africa in a provincial match in 1991, 42 were killed, while 200 km south at Ellis Park, Johannesburg on Aprill 11, 2001, 43 were crushed to death at the start of a local derby between Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates. There was an 80,000 crowd with many more trying to get in. A month later in Accra, Ghana Hearts of Oak were leading Ashanti Koloko when police used tear gas and panic broke out-120 died. In Moscow in 1982 at a European Cup match between Moscow Spartak and Haarlem of Holland at the Luzhiniki Stadium at least 340 died on icy exit stairs. Bastia, Corsica; Khatmandu, Nepal; Guatemala City, Buenos Aires, Argentina; Lusaka , Zambia; Harare, Zimbabwe, and many more.....
As a kid I was often passed over peoples heads at packed stadiums down to sit at the front with other kids, and how many times I have been swept off my feet when exiting and carried along by a tide of humanity, I can't count. Todays stadiums are more like theatres, with strict controls and high prices. Going to a match is no longer risking your life.