Monday 24 July 2017

Bradford fire which claimed 56 lives 'may not have been an accident'

Charred exit gates in the main stand at Bradford City's Valley Parade stadium, where 56 people died and 265 were injured as a fire swept the packed stand just before half-time of the game against Lincoln City in 1985
Charred exit gates in the main stand at Bradford City's Valley Parade stadium, where 56 people died and 265 were injured as a fire swept the packed stand just before half-time of the game against Lincoln City in 1985
An Aerial view of Bradford City's Valley Parade football ground with smoke rising from the devastating fire, which swept the main stand in four minutes just before half-time during the Division Three match against Lincoln City in the last game of the season. 56 people died and 265 were injured.
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, watched by her husband Denis, lays a wreath among the hundreds of other floral tributes near the turn stile area of the Bradford City football ground in 1985

The Bradford City fire which killed 56 football fans when flames tore through a stand in 1985 could have been started deliberately, a new book about the tragedy suggests.

A survivor of the blaze says he has uncovered evidence the then chairman was in severe financial trouble at the time and several of his businesses had been struck by fires in the past, resulting in large insurance claims.

The book, '56 - The Story of the Bradford Fire', which is being serialised in The Guardian, says more should have been done to investigate links between Stafford Heginbotham and at least eight other fires which occurred over 18 years.

The author Martin Fletcher, who lost his 11-year-old brother, father, uncle and grandfather in the disaster, says Mr Heginbotham was under intense financial pressure when Valley Parade's wooden Main Stand burnt down.

He was unable to pay his workforce beyond that month and had been told two days before the fire that it would cost £2 million to bring the stadium up to safety standards required by promotion.

His book alleges the fire at Valley Parade was just one of at least nine fires at businesses owned by or associated with Mr Heginbotham, who died in 1995.

 Mr Fletcher does not make any direct allegations, but says the series of fires, which resulted in payouts of around £27 million in today's terms, should have prompted further investigation. "Could any man really be as unlucky as Heginbotham had been?" he asks.

He says he does not believe the fire was an accident and his family is no longer willing to “live the myth”.

His brother, Andrew, 11, was the youngest victim of the fire and his father John, 34, uncle Peter, 32, and grandfather Eddie, 63, all died.

The Popplewell Inquiry, held three weeks after the tragedy to determine the causes of the fire, did not hear evidence relating to Mr Heginbotham's finances.

 It concluded that the fire was probably started by a discarded cigarette, match or pipe tobacco slipping through the stand’s floor boards to ignite of litter that had accumulated over the previous 20 years.

Mr Fletcher pieced together his evidence through months of research into Mr Heginbotham's business history and by examining 20 years of local newspaper reports into fires in the Bradford area.

Heginbotham, who died in 1995, aged 61, was never prosecuted for the Valley Parade fire though the coroner later said that he had considered a manslaughter charge as the club had failed to act on three separate warnings about potential fire risk.

Gerry Sutcliffe, a former sports minister, said the book’s allegations did not justify a new inquiry into the disaster.

The MP for Bradford South, who was deputy leader of Bradford City council at the time of the tragedy, said he knew Mr Heginbotham "flew by the seat of his pants" while running the club.

Mr Sutcliffe said: “The inquiry by Mr Justice Popplewell concluded that it was caused by a discarded cigarette in what was an old wooden stand and I have not heard anything to convince me that that was not the case.

"Stafford Heginbotham was one of those football club chairmen of which there were many at the time who flew by the seat of his pants. I was deputy leader of the city council at the time and he did fly by the seat of his pants when it came to paying the bill for the police and so on.

"But I think the inquiry was very thorough at the time and I don't think there needs to be another because of this. I do not believe there was any sort of cover-up and in fact the inquiry led to a lot of recommendations on stadiums that together with the Taylor report came up with the right answers for football.”

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