Adexon Remembers: The Bradford City Stadium Fire

“People were on fire from their head to their feet. It was a horrific day I’ll never forget. I live with those memories 24/7 and lose sleep over it sometimes.”[1]
Rodney Lawn

Just 2-days before demolition day, on Saturday 11th May 1985, the antiquated Main stand at Valley Parade went up in flames, taking with it the lives of 56 supporters, and injuring over 260 more.


Antique wooden stands, a build-up of litter, a windy day, and a cigarette stub created the perfect storm, resulting in the Main Stand being fully engulfed in smoke and fire within 4-minutes, leaving the approaching fire brigade facing ‘huge flames and dense smoke.’[2]


Smoke and flames on the top of the stand at Bradford City stadium

A discarded cigarette


Unlike the fire at King’s Cross Station on Wednesday 18th November 1987, whose fire was tenuously concluded to have been caused by ‘discarded smokers materials,’[3] the source of the fire in Bradford City is directly attributable to a discarded cigarette in a polystyrene cup, despite ongoing rumours of club chairman Stafford Heginbotham using the disaster as a front for insurance fraud.

‘There was a man over from Australia visiting his son and they got two tickets to the game. He lit a cigarette and when it was coming to an end (,) he put it down on to the floorboard and tried to put his foot on it to put it out. It slipped through a hole in the floorboard. A minute later he saw a small plume of smoke (,) so he poured his coffee on it and so did his son. It seemed to put it out. But a minute or so later there was suddenly a bigger whoosh of smoke so they went to get a steward. By the time they got back, the whole thing had taken off.’[4]

The unfortunate Australian spectator inadvertently dropped his cigarette onto the perfect fuel source, in the perfect conditions for rapid fire spread. Namely, a dry windy day.

The Fire Triangle, with oxygen, heat, and fuel on each side.

The effects of wind


Wind, as we often see during wildfires, can be ‘the most unpredictable factor, […] (as) they supply the fire with additional oxygen, further dry potential fuel and push the fire across the land at a faster rate.’[5]


The quantity, and direction of oxygen in the wind that has the most effect on fires, by

  • increasing the rate of burning if oxygen levels are high or decreasing the rate of combustion if low.

  • Drying out nearby fuel sources, making them able to ignite and burn.

  • Encouraging heat energy to move in waves via radiation or using convection currents.[6]


This increased oxygen supply results in the fire being able to spread rapidly through the stand, using the discarded litter and the wooden stands as fuel sources, which continue to build further flames and smoke.


As a result, the fire at Valley Parade is regarded as the biggest fire disaster in any football stadium.


"It spread like a flash," said 46-year-old Bradford City fan Geoffrey Mitchell. "I've never seen anything like it. The smoke was choking. You could hardly breathe.[7]


The collapsed wreckage from the fire strewn on the floor.



37-years later


As a result of the fire at Bradford City’s stadium, the Popplewell Inquiry, chaired by Sir Oliver Popplewell, led to the introduction of legislation to improve safety at UK football grounds, including,

  • banning new wooden grandstands across the UK,

  • the immediate closure of pre-existing wooden stands deemed unsafe,

  • and the complete cessation of smoking in wooden stands.[8]


As a direct result of the Bradford City disaster, fire safety standards in stadiums have been vastly improved, both by implementing directions from the Popplewell enquiry and further industry-wide advances. As a result, the 1980s could be seen as the most important decade for changes in football stadiums across the UK and Europe.


During the decade, alongside the Bradford City fire, the Heysel Stadium disaster, in Brussels, Belgium, on 29th May 1985, claimed 39 lives and injured 600 in a crushing incident, and later in the decade the Hillsborough disaster at the Leppings Lane stand of the Sheffield Wednesday’s stadium, resulted in 97 deaths and 766 injuries, also from human crushing, on 15th April 1989.


The stadiums we sometimes experience such euphoric highs in today are safer in no small part to the loss of life that has occurred in stadiums across the world, a fact we can be reminded of in future visits, with gestures such as the memorial plaque installed at the refurbished Valley Park stadium on the 17-year anniversary.

Fire officers walking along the roof assessing damage after the fire.



__________________________________________________________________________ Image 1 from The Guardian, ‘Revealed: former Bradford chairman linked to at least eight fires before Valley Parade disaster,’ published by Daniel Taylor, 15.04.2015, image courtesy of Hulton-Deutsch Collection/ CORB

[1] Daily record, “I’ll never forget it” Bradford City disaster witness wants to see stadium safety reassessed following Hillsborough verdict, published by Stephen Temlett, 29.04.2016, <https://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/local-news/ill-never-forget-it-bradford-7860396>

[2] FBU.org.uk, ‘Bradford City FC stadium fire,’ <https://www.fbu.org.uk/history/bradford-city-fc-stadium-fire> 02.03.2022

Image 2 from Daily Mail, ‘As English football prepares to fall silent to mark the 30th anniversary of the 1985 Bradford fire, how the disaster which claimed 56 fans' lives still has the power to shock,’ published by Jack Gaughan, 24.04.2015, <https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/sportsnews/article-3053839/As-English-football-prepares-fall-silent-mark-30th-anniversary-1985-Bradford-fire-disaster-claimed-56-fans-lives-power-shock.html> image courtesy of I.T.N/ REX Shutterstock.

[3]The Department for Transport, ‘Investigation into the King's Cross Underground Fire,’ published 19.10.1988, page 19.

[4] Express, ‘Bradford’s Valley Parade fire must be remembered like Hillsborough,’ by Neil Squires, Updated 23.04.2015 <https://www.express.co.uk/sport/football/572145/Bradford-City-Valley-Parade-Fire-Minute-Silence>

[5] Science.howstuffworks.com, ‘How Wildfires Work,’ published by Kevin Bonsor, 29.05.2001, <https://science.howstuffworks.com/nature/natural-disasters/wildfire.htm>

[6] Sciencelearn.org.nz, ‘Fire Behaviour,’ published 19.11.2009, <https://www.sciencelearn.org.nz/resources/763-fire-behaviour>

Image 3 from Daily Mail, ‘As English football prepares to fall silent to mark the 30th anniversary of the 1985 Bradford fire, how the disaster which claimed 56 fans' lives still has the power to shock,’ published by Jack Gaughan, 24.04.2015, <https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/sportsnews/article-3053839/As-English-football-prepares-fall-silent-mark-30th-anniversary-1985-Bradford-fire-disaster-claimed-56-fans-lives-power-shock.html> image courtesy of Barry Wilkinson/ REX Shutterstock.

[7] BBC news archive, ‘1985: Fans killed in Bradford stadium fire,’ originally published 11.05.1985, <https://web.archive.org/web/20080307113041/http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/may/11/newsid_2523000/2523561.stm>

[8] Popplewell Inquiry, ‘The Papers of the Popplewell Inquiry into Crowd Safety at Sports Grounds’. Library, University of Bradford.

Image 4 from Daily Mail, ‘As English football prepares to fall silent to mark the 30th anniversary of the 1985 Bradford fire, how the disaster which claimed 56 fans' lives still has the power to shock,’ published by Jack Gaughan, 24.04.2015, <https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/sportsnews/article-3053839/As-English-football-prepares-fall-silent-mark-30th-anniversary-1985-Bradford-fire-disaster-claimed-56-fans-lives-power-shock.html> image courtesy of PA Archive/ Press Association.

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