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Page last updated at 10:24 GMT, Tuesday, 11 May 2010 11:24 UK
Twenty five years on: The Valley Parade fire remembered
By Martin Coldrick
BBC West Yorkshire

Floral tributes at Valley Parade
Floral tributes laid at Valley Parade after the fire in 1985 which claimed 56 lives

Saturday 11 May 1985: a date that Bradford City fans will always remember - but for all the wrong reasons.

Starting out as a day of celebration, with the Bantams having just been promoted, it ended as a day of tragedy.

Fifty six people died and over 270 were injured in a fire which ripped through the main stand at Valley Parade.

Paul Firth, one of the Bradford City fans who luckily escaped the fire, says: "There will always be a part of me that stopped on 11 May 1985."

Paul Firth
Paul Firth is one of those who survived the fire at Valley Parade

The exact cause of the blaze at Valley Parade is still unknown, but it is thought that a lit cigarette or match dropped onto accumulated rubbish beneath the club's wooden main stand could have sparked the fire which took no more than four minutes to claim so many lives.

Paul Firth was in the main stand as events started to unfold.

It was the last game of the season and he was there to watch Bradford City play Lincoln City, and to mark the Bantams' success on the pitch during the season.

To this day, he remains shocked at the speed in which happiness turned to horror.

He says: "There's a stark contrast between what was happening at a quarter past three when we were all celebrating winning our first trophy for what seemed like hundreds of years, and what was going on by quarter to four, by which time we were trying to save our own lives."

'Worst place to be'

Paul was sitting on the very back row of the main stand with his father-in-law and a friend. He now realises: "That was probably the worst place to be."

Behind him were turnstiles, which let fans into - but not out of - the stadium, and a number of locked doors. In front of him was row after row of wooden and plastic seats. Below these seats was a steep drop into what was known as The Paddock where many fans were standing, cheering on the pre-match celebrations.

In The Paddock was 21-year-old David Pendleton, another Bradford City fan looking forward to a happy end to a fantastic season for his club.

He was standing just 20 feet away from where the fire started.

David Pendleton
David Pendleton remains a Bradford City fan 25 years after the fire

David says the first he knew something was wrong was at the very start of the match.

"There was a bit of smoke. There were just jokes - laughing and joking. The ground was quite decrepit then and people were joking: 'I know we need a new stand but this is ridiculous'.

"But then - and I think this is a really difficult thing to get across to people who weren't there on the day - I remember seeing the flames appear.

"It suddenly went from a joke to something serious in perhaps a second or two seconds. We realised we needed to get out."

Behind David, up in the very top of the main stand, Paul Firth had also realised something was awry. His father-in-law had felt underneath the seats and realised there was a lot of heat coming from somewhere. After a few moments, they decided to leave - as did many of their fellow spectators.

'Complete blackness'

From then, remembers Paul, things moved very quickly.

"It got smokier and smokier. The next really startling thing was that it was smoky grey and then it was just as though someone had switched off the lights.

"It went completely black. I couldn't see anything. All I was aware of was the press of people and very slow movement.

"Then, rather sadly, there were the noises - screams and shrieks, perhaps people falling or people trying to get out of those exits which I knew you couldn't get out of.

"From that point it was complete blackness. It was just a throng, a press of humanity. People were just trying to save themselves - but weren't going anywhere at all."

Some distance below, David Pendleton was in difficulties too.

Valley Parade stadium after the May 1985 fire
Aftermath: The scene at Valley Parade after the fire on 11 May 1985

He said: "I got crushed on the front wall with the weight of people behind me.

"A kid pulled me over onto the pitch by my hood. I landed on my head, upside-down, and I trotted about a quarter of the way across the pitch.

"I remember looking back and by that time the fire had hit the roof and it had just gone. There was this wall of smoke and a wall of people being pushed along in front of the smoke.

"I remember thinking: 'They're not all going to get out'. That's the first time I realised it was pretty serious and that people were probably going to die."

Decision time

The fire in the main stand was now spreading rapidly. In fact, it was consuming the wooden structure faster than people could get out.

For Paul Firth, it was decision time. He was struggling to breathe as thick black smoke rose to the top of the stand where he and many others were trying to find a way out. It was at this point that Paul took a decision that probably saved his life.

He recalls: "To my left it seemed grey as opposed to total blackness.

"I decided that was the way to go - to the grey. I had to go down through the seats and towards the pitch.

"It's at that point that I've no recollection. From making that decision the next thing I actually remember is being at the wall that ran alongside the pitch. How I got there I've never, ever known.

"However, when I got home in the evening I found I had marks across my trousers from the knees down. That meant that whatever I'd bumped into, the seats were already melting."

Both Paul and David had managed to escape the blaze. They joined hundreds of other survivors on the pitch at Valley Parade, surveying a scene which no-one could have expected just minutes before.

Behind them, the main stand was by this time completely ablaze - just a few minutes after that first wisp of smoke had floated up from beneath the stand.

It would take some time before either man could take in what they were seeing and what they had just experienced.

Bradford Fire memorial at Valley Parade
The names of the 56 victims of the fire are remembered at Valley Parade

David says: "When we came out of the ground, I did see people laid on the pitch. I remember saying to one of my friends: 'It looks like most people got out'. He said, 'You're joking, aren't you?'

"I hadn't seen what he'd seen and that's when the enormity struck."

And Paul remembers: "On the way out there was a very young policeman. I asked him what I now know was a stupid question: 'Has everybody got out?'

"He didn't answer in words. His expression and his shrug of the shoulders effectively said, 'No'."

'Awful duties'

After much waiting and searching, Paul eventually found his father-in-law and his friend and they headed home.

David, meanwhile, found himself once again in the city centre later on that evening: "I went into town for a drink that night and remember there was all the smoke and the fire brigade were clambering about, doing their awful duties.

"Going back out of town, I saw they'd lit the ground up with these lights. There was this really eerie white light and the smoke and the skeleton of the stand.

"That image sticks in my mind more than anything. There was something awful about it."

When you go down into Centenary Square on the day of the fire memorial you still see people in floods of tears.
David Pendleton, fire survivor

Back home, Paul turned on the TV and saw what millions across the world were now seeing - dreadful scenes from the football stadium he had been sat in just hours ago as it was consumed by a fierce and out-of-control fire.

He says he was shocked by what he saw: "That's when it hit. Was I in that? Was all that fire and smoke going on around me?

"Then later again, when you find out more about the circumstances, it must have been at some time that there was fire under me and above me. How did I get out?

"That just can't have happened. But it did."

Raw emotion

Twenty five years later, memories of the Bradford City fire are obviously as stark as they ever were.

As the city once again remembers the 56 football fans who died because of the fire at Valley Parade, it is a moment of reflection for both Paul Firth and David Pendleton.

David says: "When you go down into Centenary Square on the day of the fire memorial you still see people in floods of tears. You still see people with damage to the back of their hands and necks - people with burns.

"That emotion is still there. It's still raw and it's still alive."

And Paul, who now lives in Liverpool but who has a 25-year season ticket to Valley Parade, says the minute's silence at the start of every season's final home game is just one of those moments when he pauses to think about what he and others experienced.

He says: "I've been to virtually every game for the last 25 years. Now, I sit across in the opposite stand and during that minute I just stare at a space which is where the fire started.

"Now my young son puts his arm around me. That always gets me."

So has any good come out of the tragic events of Saturday 11 May 1985 and the Popplewell inquiry which followed soon after?

Bradford Fire memorial at Valley Parade
This memorial is dedicated to all who died or suffered during the fire

David, who is now curator of Bradford City's Bantamspast museum at Valley Parade, says: "The really important thing is that now, wherever you go, the chance of a football ground burning down is almost nil.

"The wooden stands have nearly all gone, replaced by concrete and plastic.

"Some people like to say that the soul of football has gone, but it's a fair price to pay, to be frank."

And Paul believes that there is one other lasting legacy of the Bradford City fire: "The huge positive, and it is really unique, is the Burns Research Unit. The people of Bradford and much further afield put a lot of time and effort and cash into providing a fund after the fire.

"Some of that fund went into setting up what is now an internationally recognised Burns Research Unit at Bradford University and Bradford Royal Infirmary which would never have happened but for the fire."

Having written a book about his and other people's experiences in the Bradford fire, the aptly titled Four Minutes to Hell, Paul realises that he is one of the lucky ones - one of those who lived to tell the story of the fire at Valley Parade.

He admits: "If you were my next door neighbour now and didn't know I'd been there then you would never know. Life has gone on as it has had to do.

"In that regard, I consider myself extremely fortunate. There are others for who life, frankly, has not gone on."

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