UK

Bradford City Valley Parade Fire Claims Are 'Nonsense,' Ex-Inquiry Judge Oliver Popplewell Says

16/04/2015 10:52 BST | Updated 16/04/2015 11:59 BST

Claims that a stadium fire that killed 56 people was arson are "nonsense", according to the former judge whose official enquiry concluded it was an accident.

Fire gutted the Bradford City's Valley Parade Stadium in May, 1985, spreading quickly through the entire main stand, leaving many dead, despite police evacuating fans to the pitch. It is English football's second deadliest stadium disaster after Hillsborough.

The inquiry, led by Mr Justice Oliver Popplewell, concluded that the cause was an accident probably started by a spectator dropping a cigarette into the rubbish that had accumulated under an old timber stand.

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But a new book by survivor Martin Fletcher claims the fire at Valley Parade was one of at least nine fires at businesses owned by or linked to the club's then chairman Stafford Heginbotham, who died in 1995, and suggests he was responsible because he sought a big insurance payout.

Popplewell told BBC Radio Leeds: "I'm sorry to spoil what is obviously a very good story but I'm afraid it's nonsense for a number of reasons."

The retired judge said the main flaw in the argument that the fire was arson was that the stand involved had no insurance value because it was due for demolition.

He said the fire was examined by experienced and thorough investigators who found nothing suspicious. And he said no question of arson was ever raised in civil legal proceedings.

Popplewell also rejected claims his inquiry was held too quickly, three weeks after the fire.

He said: "I can quite understand after having previous fires some suspicion being raised but, as far as I'm concerned, we conducted our inquiry perfectly properly and I have no reason believe it was other than an accident."

Heginbotham's son James, 47, told the Daily Mirror: "When you actually do your homework and see what he did for Bradford City Football Club it is a sickening accusation. It is just absolutely ridiculous.

"He never recovered from the fire. The stress of it is what killed him eventually."

He added: "He's no longer here to defend himself. It's a real shame it has come to this."

Fletcher was 12 at the time of the fire and lost three generations of his family, including his father and brother.

The book 'Fifty-Six - The Story Of The Bradford Fire', published today and being serialised in The Guardian, does not make any direct allegations but Fletcher says Heginbotham's history with fires, which he claims resulted in payouts totalling around £27 million in today's terms, warranted further investigation.

Crowds on the pitch as the fire burns

"Could any man really be as unlucky as Heginbotham had been?" he asks.

Fletcher's 11-year-old brother was the fire's youngest victim while his father John, 34, uncle Peter, 32, and grandfather Eddie, 63, also died.

The disaster occurred at a time, according to Fletcher's evidence, when the businessman was in desperate financial trouble - and two days after he discovered it would cost £2 million to bring the ground up to safety standards required by Bradford's promotion from the old Third Division.

Fletcher is the only survivor to publicly challenge the official inquiry, describing it as inadequate and saying it took place far too close to the event.

A minute's silence is due to be held at every Premier League and Football League match on Saturday April 25 to mark the forthcoming 30th anniversary.

stafford heginbotham

Stafford Heginbotham (left) at the stadium after the fire with Mr Justice Popplewell (right)

Yesterday, former sports minister Gerry Sutcliffe said the new allegations do not justify a new inquiry into the disaster.

Sutcliffe, MP for Bradford South and deputy leader of Bradford City Council at the time of the tragedy, said he knew Heginbotham "flew by the seat of his pants" in terms of the finances of the club, but remains convinced by the conclusion of the inquiry.

West Yorkshire Police said the force would consider any new evidence about the fire.

Detective Superintendent Mark Ridley said: "The jury at the inquest in 1985 delivered a verdict of misadventure.

"However should any evidence come to light which was not available to Her Majesty's Coroner at the original inquest, then we will consider its significance and take appropriate action."