“It’s supposed to be a day of celebration.” Those were commentator John Helm’s baffled words as the first flames took hold at Bradford City’s stadium on 11th May 1985. 11,000 fans had come to watch the team play the final game of the season against Lincoln City and lift the Division Three trophy.
At 3.40pm a fire was spotted in the main stand. Within four minutes the whole of the wooden stand was ablaze. A new BT Sport documentary presented by Gabby Logan looks back on the events of that day. Logan, then 12 years old, was at Valley Parade that day – her father Terry Yorath was Bradford City’s assistant manager – and she and her father still recall what happened in vivid detail: the day 56 fans went to watch a football match, and never came home.
Logan is just one witness in a documentary that gives voice to many survivors that day: players, supporters, police, doctors and nurses.
The 78-year-old stand was due to be demolished and replaced the very next day. Team captain Peter Jackson, 22 at the time, worked at the ground his whole career, and tells Logan how as an apprentice he used to sweep the rubbish down through holes in the stand floor. “It was a tinderbox waiting to happen,” he says.
Karl Hepton tells the camera how he went to the ground with his grandma Nellie Foster. Karl was just nine years old, and was lifted out of the stand by 64-year-old Nellie and told to run. That was the last he saw of her. His brother Carl, who didn’t have a ticket that day, went to the local hospital to try find her. “We thought she were invincible, but she didn’t get out,” he says.
There are many such stories of heroism. Matthew Wildman suffers from rheumatoid arthritis, and was on crutches when the fire started just one block away from where he was sitting. He was rescued from the blaze twice by fellow supporter David Hustler, who caught Matthew as he jumped eight foot from the stand to safety on the concrete floor below.
David, we’re told, now has problems with his memory, but when the pair meet again the events of Valley Parade still seem fresh. “Everything I did that day is in my head,” says David.
Now those memories are also recorded, the testimony of eyewitnesses saved. “The Bradford Fire story has never been told like this before,” Logan says. “It is in many ways the quiet tragedy and that reflects the personality of the city. The people of Bradford were incredible in the way they reacted on the 11th May 1985 and they have been remarkable in the way they have allowed us to tell the story in 2015.”
Viewers without a BT Sport subscription can watch the full documentary online at btsport.com. One Day in May: The Story of The Bradford City Fire airs on 11th May at 9.30pm on BT Sport 1