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English soccer pauses to remember deadly 1985 Bradford fire

23 April 2015, 17:26

Bradford - High up in the corner of the stadium, draped over dozens of seats and hidden from the spring sunshine, a message on a giant England flag reads: "You'll Never Walk Alone. May 11th 1985. RIP."

Tony Sykes, now 81 and a longtime fan of English soccer club Bradford, points toward the stand.

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"I was just over there when it happened," he said, vividly recalling one of the worst sporting disasters in the country's history, before falling silent.

It's approaching 30 years since Valley Parade, Bradford's home ground, became an inferno. Fifty-six spectators died and 265 were injured when a fire broke out and engulfed a wooden main stand holding about 3,500 fans during the team's final match of the season against Lincoln.

On Saturday and Sunday, soccer stadiums across England will fall silent for a minute before kickoff in honor of those who died. Much of the focus will be on Valley Parade, where dignitaries like England coach Roy Hodgson, the chairman of the English Football Association and officials from England's football leagues will be present for Bradford's third-tier game against Barnsley.

"I'm not overly comfortable with it, because Bradford has done (its commemorations) quietly, respectfully, throughout," Bradford co-chairman Mark Lawn told The Associated Press about the national attention his club will receive. "Some of the clubs around the country want to do a minute's applause. They can do what they want, but I was there that day and there's nothing to celebrate."

That Saturday in May was supposed to be a day of celebration for Bradford and its fans. The team had just clinched promotion to the second division as champions of their league, and the trophy was presented before the match.

"It was almost a carnival atmosphere," said 62-year-old Steve Procter, who attended the match with his wife and son. "It was a fine May day and I remember there being lots of families, lots of kids."

In the 44th minute, with the score 0-0, fire broke out. It is thought a man visiting from Australia accidentally dropped a cigarette butt through a gap in the floorboards that landed on debris below. Within four minutes, the whole structure was ablaze, with plumes of black smoke filling the sky as tarpaulin and timber rafters fell from the roof onto the spectators below.

The heat was extraordinary, and the scenes were horrifying.

"I was half a pitch away," Sykes said. "I had a plastic jacket on and it was almost melting."

Panicked fans stampeded to the exits at the back of the stand, only to find they were padlocked. Others frantically vaulted over the wall in front of the stand to escape onto the field of play. Television footage shows police officers and spectators dragging bodies across the grass as they used jackets to shield their faces from the blaze.

One man emerged from the wreckage, his body on fire.

"It was pandemonium," said Procter, who has been told by a co-worker that he has since picked up a habit of scanning hotels for their emergency exits.

Other legacies of the disaster remain. Outside the ground, there is a memorial listing the names of the 56 people who died, ranging in age from 11 to 86. Just around the corner from the stadium, a road has been re-named "Hamm Strasse," after the German town of Hamm, which is twinned with Bradford and helped the English city get back on its feet after the fire.

And a short drive away, there is a specialist burn research unit created by David Sharpe, the plastic surgeon from the local hospital who led the treatment of the fans affected by the fire. Many of the top plastic surgeons in the country have started their training there.

"Our unit is funded solely from donations that come in from the Bradford supporters and the people of Bradford," said Ajay Mahajan, the director of the unit. "It's a unique relationship. The fire was not a nice thing to happen, but there are so many things to come out of it."

Some of the money for the burn unit came from record sales when "You'll Never Walk Alone," a 1963 song by Gerry and the Pacemakers, was re-released in 1985 to raise money for the Bradford fire disaster fund.

The song, known by many as the anthem of English club Liverpool, topped the British charts for a second time in June 1985.

In recent weeks, the Valley Parade fire has come under renewed scrutiny after a newly published book written by a man who escaped the blaze said it was one of nine fires at businesses owned by or associated with the club's then-chairman, Stafford Heginbotham, and alleged it may have been set deliberately.

Police have said they will consider any new evidence, but Lawn said "people have put two and two together and made 25."

"We know who started the fire," said Lawn, sitting in an executive suite overlooking the field. "Stafford was sat there with his family in that stand. He didn't start that fire."

Although Bradford is playing Barnsley in the final home match this season, the club's kit man will walk to the game from Lincoln, a distance of 73 miles (117 kilometers).

"There will always be a link between the two clubs," John Duckworth, who was at Valley Parade on the day of the fire, told the local Telegraph and Argus newspaper. "I've done the walk before, but obviously it's bigger this time with this being the 30th year since the fire."

Before the match, Bradford fans will present members of the burn unit with the latest donations, and a wreath will be laid at the memorial and also on the center circle before the minute's silence.

"It'll be a time to reflect on what happened," Lawn said. "There are a lot of people with scars and it opens the wound up every year."

- AP


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