The Bradford City Stadium Fire was a tragic accident like no other. The fire occurred during a Football League Third Division match on Saturday, 11 May 1985 at the Valley Parade stadium in Bradford, West Yorkshire, England. The event led to the death of 56 spectators and injured at least 265. The Bradford City Stadium fire event changed the way that stadiums were built. This event paved the way for drastic new regulations regarding fire safety in these types of structures.
The Bradford City Stadium was renowned for its old-fashioned layout and features, which included the main stand’s wooden roof. Prior alerts had previously been issued over a significant accumulation of rubbish in the space beneath the stand’s seats. After the season, a steel structure was supposed to take its place, as the stand had been declared officially condemned.
The match between Bradford City and Lincoln City was the final game of the season. It had started in a celebratory atmosphere with the home team receiving the Third Division championship trophy.
The match kicked off at 3:04 pm and after 40 minutes of the first half, the score remained 0–0. The match was described to be a drab affair with neither team threatening to score.
At 3:44 pm, five minutes before half-time, the first sign of fire was noticed three rows from the back of block G. A glowing light could be seen, as reported by television commentator John Helm.
In less than four minutes, with the windy conditions, the fire had engulfed the whole stand, trapping some people in their seats. In the panic that ensued, fleeing crowds escaped onto the pitch but others at the back of the stand tried to break down locked exit doors to escape.
The fire escalated very rapidly, and flames became visible; police started to evacuate the stand. As the blaze spread, the wooden stands and roof covered with layers of highly flammable bituminous roofing quickly went ablaze. Burning timbers and molten materials fell from the roof onto the crowd and seating below, and dense black smoke enveloped a passageway behind the stand, where many spectators were trying to escape.
One eyewitness, Geoffrey Mitchell, told the BBC: “It spread like a flash. I’ve never seen anything like it. The smoke was choking. You could hardly breathe.” As spectators began to cascade over the wall separating the stand from the pitch, the linesman on that side of the pitch informed referee Norman Glover, who stopped the game with three minutes remaining before half-time. It took less than four minutes for the entire stand to be engulfed in flames.
There were no fire extinguishers in the stand’s passageway for fear of vandalism. One spectator ran to the clubhouse to find one but was overcome by smoke and impeded by others trying to escape, and could not return. Supporters either ran upwards to the back of the stand or downwards to the pitch to escape. The stand had no perimeter fencing to keep fans from accessing the pitch, thus averting an instance of crush asphyxia. Footage of the accident at this point shows levels of confusion among the spectators. While many were trying to escape or to cross the pitch to the relative safety of the neighbouring stands, other spectators were observed cheering or waving to the broadcasting pitchside cameras.
Most of the exits at the back were locked or shut and there were no stewards present to open them, but seven were forced open or found open. Three men smashed down one door and at least one exit was opened by people outside, which again helped prevent further deaths. Geoffrey Mitchell said: “There was panic as fans stampeded to an exit which was padlocked. Two or three burly men put their weight against it and smashed the gate open. Otherwise, I would not have been able to get out.” At the front of the stand, men threw children over the wall to help them escape. Most of those who escaped onto the pitch were saved.
People who had escaped the fire then tried to assist their fellow supporters. Police officers also assisted in the rescue attempts. One man clambered over burning seats to help a fan, as did player John Hawley, and one officer led fans to an exit, only to find it shut and had to turn around.
Bradford City’s coach Terry Yorath, whose family was in the stand, ran onto the pitch to help evacuate people. Another player went into the office space to ensure there was nobody there. One fan put his jumper over a fellow supporter’s head to extinguish flames. Those who escaped were taken out of the ground to neighbouring homes and a pub, where a television screened World of Sport, which broadcast video recorded of the fire just an hour after it was filmed. There were many cases of heroism, with more than 50 people later receiving police awards or commendations for bravery.
The fire brigade arrived at the ground four minutes after they were initially alerted. However, the fire had consumed the stand entirely by that point. The fire brigade was already faced with huge flames and very dense smoke on arrival. As many supporters still required rescue from the stand, they were unable to immediately start fighting the source of the fire.
The fire destroyed the main stand completely and left only burned seats, lamps and metal fences remaining. Within a few hours of the blaze starting, it was established that 56 people had been killed, many as a result of smoke inhalation, although some of them had survived until reaching the hospital.
What did the Bradford City Stadium Fire Change?
The Bradford City Stadium Fire led to rigid new safety standards in UK stadiums. This included the banning of new wooden grandstands. It was also a catalyst for the substantial redevelopment and the modernisation of many British football grounds. This changed many grounds across the country within the following thirty years. Bradford City continues to support the Bradford Burns Unit, at the University of Bradford, as its official charity.