Book Review: Four Minutes to Hell: The Story of the Bradford City Fire by Paul Firth
Saturday 11 May 1985 should have been a day of celebration at Valley Parade as Bradford City paraded the trophy after winning the 1984/85 Third Division title. Instead it became an occasion of horror, devastation and sadness. Towards the end of the first-half in the game against Lincoln City, a small flame was seen underneath an area of seats, but which in minutes turned the whole stand into an inferno. 56 people lost their lives and hundreds more were injured.
Four Minutes to Hell by Paul Firth was written 20 years after the tragedy. Some might question the morality of writing about such an event and it is something that the author did consider and shares his reasoning for publishing the story within the early part of the book. Firth understood that his work could “…perpetuate publicly the memory of the terrible disaster they (the citizens of Bradford) had suffered…” However, the author felt compelled to tell the story, encouraged by those that he spoke to in gathering his research. Firth explains that he decided to go ahead with his project so that “…those who don’t know what happened will take a little time to find out more and perhaps understand why some of us still want to have that day remembered with dignity for a long time yet…”
The title of the book refers to the estimated time from the first flame to the entire stand being on fire – just four minutes. Hell? Well on two counts really. Firstly, anyone seeing the pictures of the blaze will relate to the biblical reference to the fires of hell and secondly what people suffered at the time and perhaps what some survivors still endure as a consequence of the events that day. The cover of the book is simply laid out featuring the Bradford City colours of Claret and Amber and has a picture which shows the fire having engulfed Block G of the stand and it spreading towards the Bradford End, with some spectators on the pitch as the players look to leave the playing area. In terms of content it is set out in seventeen chapters, with a foreword by Terry Yorath and a postscript, totalling 191 pages and 16 pages of pictures. Whilst this book features events on that fateful day as seen through the eyes of fans, players, officials and the various emergency services, it also provides details of the aftermath and the changes at Valley Parade and in football that followed the tragedy in 1985.
Paul Firth in the early chapters sets the scene and context in looking at other football disasters, such as Burnden Park (1946), Ibrox (1971) and Hillsborough (1989) and reminds the reader that football and its grounds were a very different event to that which people attend today. The author also provides a detailed description of the lay-out and condition of the main stand in Bradford in 1985, which is useful when Firth recounts the stories of other people on the day of the fire. The majority of the chapters then follow various people and their recollections of that dreadful day, whether they were fans, players, police, media or hospital staff. Chapter fifteen focuses on Mr Justice Popplewell who was to lead the inquiry into the Bradford fire. The second and final Popplewell Report was issued early in 1986 and concluded that the fire started due to “…the accidental lighting of debris below the floorboards in rows I or J…” and recommended that future stands be constructed of non-combustible material and also banned smoking in stands made of combustible materials. Chapter sixteen focuses on how Valley Parade had changed in the twenty years since the fire and looks at the ways in which present day games are organised in terms of policing, stewarding and the legislation and bodies which govern spectator and stadium safety. The final Chapter is Paul Firth’s own story of that day in May 1985 and does bring together a number of strands recounted in earlier chapters.
Four Minutes to Hell is eloquently written which whilst dealing with very personal and sometimes tragic individual stories, never feels voyeuristic in any way. It has an authoritative tone, which is always respectful, but does contain some gentle wit and humour. It is a story which should not be just confined to the readership of football fans; it is about human existence; life and death, loss, grief and guilt, good-luck, fate and the survival instinct, memory and respect. A fitting tribute to all whose life changed on that fateful day in May 1985.
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