Unimaginable horror of the 56 who never came home
A new book about the Bradford fire has reopened old wounds, writes Daniel Taylordid
One day last week, Janice Lloyd showed me into the conservatory at her house a couple of miles north-west of Bradford and, before we had started to talk properly, she leaned forward in her seat and held out her arms to show how the goosebumps came up every time her mind went back to what she had seen.
Janice was a policewoman on duty in Pontefract on the night of May 11, 1985 when the call came through that there had been a fire at Bradford City’s ground and they needed help from outside the area. She was 19 and it seems almost inconceivable in today’s world that it was left to a teenager, barely out of school, to handle the hellish process of identifying the bodies.
The rules were clearly different back then. The girl from Pudsey had to grow up “overnight”. She can remember how busy and chaotic it was at Bradford Central police station, yet also how eerily silent it was. “This awful, deathly silence.” More than once, there are parts of our conversation when she stops to collect her breath.
Janice was assigned as an unofficial family liaison officer, working 15-hour days despite not having a minute of bereavement training, and it is a wonder that by the end of it she did not need her own counselling. One memory that will never leave her is of a grieving, desperate mother pulling out a school photograph of her youngest son. “A beautiful boy, lovely blue eyes, absolutely beautiful.” Andrew Fletcher was 11 years old, the youngest of the 56 to die. The next photograph was of the woman’s husband, John. “I can remember it like it was yesterday,” Janice says. “She looked at me and said: ‘They’ve not come home.’ And I knew what we had already seen at the stand earlier that day.”
Andrew was buried in a coffin where the floral tributes included a football in Bradford’s claret and amber. Every so often, Janice will see those colours and the flashbacks start again. She talks of how incredibly hard it is to listen to ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ because that was Bradford’s charity song and brings everything back. But more than anything, she remembers the first time she met that woman: Susan Fletcher. A widow at 34, Susan asked Janice if it would be possible to get her husband’s wedding ring. It wasn’t. Andrew’s uncle, Peter, and grandfather, Eddie, had to be identified by dental records. Susan wanted to see Andrew one last time but was told it was not a good idea. “Remember him as he was,” Janice told her.
The horrors are unimaginable and the people of Bradford have had to live with them for so long it has not been easy to cover the story that Martin Fletcher, Susan’s other son, has painstakingly put together about the fire and the revelations in his book, Fifty-Six: The Story of the Bradford Fire, that there had been at least eight major fires at business premises either owned by or connected to the club’s former chairman, Stafford Heginbotham.
In Bradford, there have always been people such as Patsy Hollinger, secretary of one of the main supporters’ clubs in 1985, who have wanted this story out before now, manifesting itself in a series of graffiti attacks on Heginbotham’s businesses.
One of the people who has contacted Martin in the past few days did so to tell him his father was working as a painter and decorator at Tebro Toys, Heginbotham’s company, before the blaze that ripped through the building in 1977. On the evening of the fire, his father always remembered Heginbotham telling him it “might be best if he takes all his tools home as they might not be safe left in the building”. Again, it can be put down to coincidence. All we can say for sure is that it was noteworthy enough for the son to get in touch.
It is a hugely difficult, emotive subject and, of course, there are many others who will passionately vouch for Heginbotham and argue that there must be an innocent explanation about the “mountain of coincidence” Fletcher reveals in his book, culminating in payouts worth around £27m in today’s terms. A significant number find it implausible to believe that 56 people died because Heginbotham, to quote what Susan once told her son, “went back to the one thing he knew best that would get him out of trouble. I don’t think Stafford intended for people to die. But people did.”
Heginbotham died in 1995 and people generally don’t like to speak ill of the dead. Plenty have told me that he handled the fire and its aftermath with tact and dignity. He is not short of character witnesses even if there is also the story about the memorial service at Valley Parade, two months after the fire, when a 12-year-old Martin and his relatives pulled up at traffic lights and heard a sound they had not heard all day — laughter. “We turned to the car alongside us and saw its occupants, including Stafford Heginbotham, all laughing away,” his book says. “Grandma, uncle Mike and aunty Val yelled through the open windows, wondering exactly what it was he had to be so happy about.”
Other parts of the book bring in far more serious issues than the chairman’s public behaviour and it was certainly notable, visiting Hollinger in Bradford a few days ago, that he, like Fletcher, remembers Heginbotham saying the stand was due to be demolished the following day and that the steel girders were already being stored on the car park. “It was all a lie,” Fletcher writes, quoting hard evidence from the official inquiry and identifying an aerial photograph of the cordoned-off site showing there was nothing of the kind. Hollinger, previously a groundsman at Valley Parade, brought up the exact same point. “I went up there, others went up there, and I asked people at the club, too. There wasn’t even a nail.”
Andy Burnham, the shadow health secretary, has called for a new investigation, but can anyone blame Fletcher for having so little faith in the system?
It has been claimed the timber stand had no insurance value and, again, is Fletcher wrong to feel like screaming in frustration? “As was reported widely at the time, the club collected insurance proceeds of £500,000, with a further Football Grounds Improvement Trust grant of £375,000,” he says.
Then we come to the former sports minister and proud Bradfordian, Gerry Sutcliffe. In 2011, Steve Rotheram, one of the prominent MPs in the Hillsborough campaign, became aware of Fletcher’s story. He introduced him to his local MP, the shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan, who told Fletcher he should meet Sutcliffe because “he’s been around for years, he’s a guy we all look up to, a former sports minister, Bradford through and through.”
Fletcher loves his old city yet was dubious — “the people of Bradford don’t want to know,” he said — but he eventually sent Sutcliffe a 5,000-word cry for help. There was no reply. Follow-up emails were sent over the next three months. Rotheram was involved. Sutcliffe still did not reply.
“I’d always believed he’d do nothing, but the extent of that nothing surprised even me,” Fletcher says. Sutcliffe tells me he has “no recollection of ever receiving any emails” and that is perplexing bearing in mind he has not disputed they were sent to the correct address. Sutcliffe has, however, swatted away the revelations as “speculation”.
Do the people of Bradford want to know? Colin Butterworth, one of the heroes who pulled people out of that burning stand, tells me there is 85 per cent to 90 per cent support for Martin — but that it is a silent majority. “I feel that deep down he feels that he is doing this for his father, brother, grandfather and uncle and the other 52 who perished in the fire.”
Others have attacked him. They had not anticipated this before the 30th anniversary and, to put it in context, even the club’s fanzine, the City Gent, took a policy decision never to write about the disaster. Fletcher has broken what he calls “a code of silence” but it makes you despair when Twitter’s cesspit would like us to believe the poor kid (Andrew, his little brother, would have turned 41 yesterday) is doing this for money. Fletcher, for the record, has lost around £250,000 in earnings from sacrificing his career as a chartered accountant. He is also one of the more prominent fundraisers for the Bradford Burns Unit.
That side of it has been unpleasant in the extreme. But then I think of the policewoman who was assigned to the Fletchers, at the age of 19, and her kindness is reassuring. Janice has kept in touch with the family and will be meeting Martin for a drink in a week or two.
“He was a tower of strength for his mum,” she told me. “I’ll never forget. He was like a grown-up. Twelve years old, yet having to be an adult.” Janice held up her arm again to show her goosebumps. Whatever happens next, she said, that will never change.