56 The Story of the Bradford Fire
Those of you that know a bit about me will know that I have more than a passing knowledge of fires and fire investigation, so when you read this blog you will know that it also comes with a healthy degree of expertise and knowledge.
I picked the book up last week and had read it within 48 hours, then I read it again over 3 or 4 days, just to make sure I hadn’t misread anything. This is without doubt one of the best accounts of a fire, as seen from a victims point of view, and as a piece of investigative writing, I have ever read. Martin Fletcher if ever we meet let me buy you a coffee.
The first half of the book is autobiographical. Martin writes about his life leading up to the incident in 1985, his experiences at the fire, and his life after the fire. He reminisces about the family members he lost on the day, about decisions and actions he took on the day which ultimately led to his survival, and the grieving process he is still going through. Later in the book he mentions, fleetingly, that he suffers from PTSD but at no time in the book does he come across as self- pitying, or that he is looking for anybody’s empathy. The second half of the book looks at his need to find out all of the facts about the fire. His mother was never happy with the outcome of the investigations surrounding the fire and subsequent Inquiry Chaired by Mr Justice Popplewell. Fletcher was too young at the time of the fire to realise what she was saying. As he grew older he began to understand her concerns. He heard story’s, and remembered remarks his father had made, about other fires in buildings belonging to the same man who owned Valley Parade at the time of the fire. He started to question the evidence given at the Inquiry when he noticed inconsistencies in the statements given by many of the people involved with the football club, the police on duty that day, and the expert fire investigators. He took months of his life to sit in research libraries to search out facts, and improve his understanding.
I have read in some newspapers that he is being berated for his campaign to have a new inquiry. I don’t see that. There is no malicious vendetta, there is no over exaggeration, there are no trumped up facts. It is a simple account laid out for all to see. Fletcher has taken facts and presented them in such a way that it should make it moralistically impossible for this incident not to be looked at again.
The book is written by a well-informed layman allowing anybody with an interest in this particular incident to read and understand the facts. It is the remarkable story of a survivor of the incident and his troubled journey through his teens and young adulthood. It is the account of a man who is looking for answers, and to some extent finds them, but I don’t think it’s the end of his story just the first instalment.
I spent 30 years in the Fire Service, the final 12 as a specialist Fire Investigator. In 1985 fire investigation in this country was in its infancy. Some would say at that time most fire investigators were not much more than dust kickers. As a discipline and science, like all areas of forensic investigations, it has come on leaps and bounds. However there is a lot in this book that troubles me about the science, or lack of it, used in the testing of the investigators hypothesis as to the source of the ignition.
The book also raises concerns about the speed of the Inquiry, the fact that it commenced a few weeks after the fire and lasted for only a few days; where as other Inquiry’s into similar incidents, which happened pre and post the Bradford Fire, have taken years to come to fruition and months to be heard. The fact that the Inquiry also embraced the investigation into another incident which happened on the same day, a riot in which a young boy died at Birmingham City Football Club, makes it seem more frivolous.
These days I lecture to students and professionals about fire investigation. I will recommend this book as essential reading and use it to set a project. That project will be entitled “How would you conduct this investigation if this incident happened today”. If the answer reflects the investigation which actually took place the student will fail.
As a little aside to this blog, and to explain why the Bradford Fire has always stuck in my memory let me tell you about what I was doing on the 11th of May 1985.
I was a fireman at Highgate Fire Station in the West Midlands. I can’t remember much about the morning; it would have been taken up by training and attending incidents like any other Saturday day shift. At about 2.30 in the afternoon both of our appliances were mobilised to St Andrews, the home of Birmingham City Football Club, to a flare ignited in the stand. When we arrived we were met by Police Officers who told us there was a highly charged atmosphere in the ground and that the home fans had been fighting running battles, both inside and outside of the ground with the away team, Leeds United, fans. The officer asked us not to enter the ground as it might be inflammatory to the situation so our gaffer went in on his own to ensure there was no sign of a fire. He returned to the appliances and we drove back to the station.
Highgate Fire Station sits on top of a hill and from the mess room you could see St Andrews. Once the appliances were parked up back in the engine house we made our way up the stairs to the mess for a cup of tea. As we walked through the door the first thing we saw was the live pictures from Valley Parade showing the stand fully alight and people trying to escape. Everybody ran to the window to look at the Blues ground all of us thinking “what the hell did we leave behind”. Fortunately for us the fire was in another football ground.
As we sat transfixed by the images on the television we received another shout, “the bells went down” We were on our way back to St Andrews where a wall had collapsed during a riot that was taking place in and around the ground. This time when we arrived we had work to do, digging people out from under the rubble whilst the police tried to protect us from the missiles being hurled at us by so called football fans. This was the incident in which the young boy died and which made up the second half of the Popplewell Inquiry :-
I personally don’t think much of that half either!!!