The Deadliest Fire in the History of British Soccer

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Crowds on the pitch at Bradford City’s Valley Parade stadium after the stand caught fire. Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

May 11th, 1985, started as an electrifying football match between Bradford City and Lincoln City in the West Yorkshire’s Valley Paradise stadium. Before the game kicked off, Bradford City was presented with the Championship Trophy for making it into the Third Division Championship, which was a huge accomplishment for the team.

The game started, and sometime during half-time with both teams unable to score, the referee had to stop the game because of a “small fire” in one of the spectator stands.

What started as a commotion in one part of the stand in Block G progressed into a full-blown fire within just four minutes.

Police present in the area did their best to guide people away from the stands and into the football grounds.

A Harrowing Scene

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The fire at Valley Parade, the football ground in Bradford where 56 people died. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

As the blaze began to spread, so did panic and pandemonium. Reports say that people in the stands felt the fire below their feet, and some of them looked for a fire extinguisher at the back, but there was none.

It didn’t help that the stand had a wooden roof, which aggravated the fire rather than resisting it. In seconds, molten debris fell over the seating area, instantly killing some fans.

Fire in Minutes

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Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Others were either going down the front rows of the stands and climbing over the rails or scrambling towards exits, which were locked and had to be forced open. By 3:43 p.m., police radioed the fire brigade to ask for immediate help.

The fire brigade arrived four minutes after they were called, but as police were still evacuating the stands, they couldn’t start fighting the fire right that minute. It was said that some victims died on their seat, covered in bits of tarpaulin from the roof.

The Aftermath

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Margaret Thatcher Prime Minister visits Bradford Fire Disaster scene with her husband Dennis. Photo by Victor Patterson/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

This unfortunate event will go down in history as the Bradford City Stadium fire. Fifty-six spectators lost their lives, while over 200 others were injured. The fire is known to be the worst ever in British football history.

Of the 56 victims, the oldest was Sam Firth, 86, and was a former chairman of the club.

The entire event was recorded and was later on broadcasted in BBC, just a few minutes after.

The rest of the world soon learned about the tragedy and massive support and prayers were offered from then Pope John Paul II, Germany’s Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Felipe González, who was Prime Minister of Spain at the time.

What Caused the Fire?

In a BBC Documentary, “Missed Warnings: the Bradford City Fire,” Retired Detective Inspector Raymond Falconer revealed that the investigation concluded that the fire was caused by a lit cigarette that fell through a knothole. It lit up other flammable trash under the stands, which started the fire.

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Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The man who dropped the cigarette was an Australian named Eric Bennett, who went to the game with his nephew. Bennett talked to police after the incident and told them that he dropped the cigarette on the floor and tried to put it out, but it slipped through the hole. When he noticed a fire starting, he immediately alerted the nearest police officer he can find.

A Lesson in Safety

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Photo by Clint Hughes/Getty Images Sport Collection/Getty Images

The police inquiry, which ran the investigation into the horrifying incident, prompted stricter safety laws for UK football grounds. Other stadiums with wooden stands were closed down, and smoking was no longer allowed in the stands.

It was also revealed that the club had been warned on the dangers of accumulating rubbish under the stands and that demolition was under way two days after the match.