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Book review: Fifty-Six: The Story of the Bradford Fire

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A new book stirs controversy and joins the essential canon of soccer literature.

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Last year saw the publication of a book that is destined to take its place in the canon of soccer literature, alongside the likes of The Miracle of Castel di Sangro, Among the Thugs, and The Ball is Round. Martin Fletcher's Fifty-Six: The Story of the Bradford Fire is an engrossing, saddening, maddening page-turner.

The Fire

On May 11, 1985, Bradford City Football Club was playing at home versus Lincoln City. Valley Parade stadium was packed with more than 11,000 fans. It was the final game of the Football League Third Division (now League One) season. Bradford City had secured first place and a promotion. Before the match began, the team would be presented with its first trophy in 56 years. The Lincoln City match was, in itself, meaningless. But the day was a big deal for Bradford fans.

Martin Fletcher was 12 years old. He was crazy about soccer. His dad was even crazier about Bradford City. There was no way they would miss this event. And on that day, Martin and his dad, along with Martin's little brother, his uncle, and his grandfather, filled five seats of G Block in a large wooden stand at Valley Parade.

In the middle of the first half, spectators in and near G Block reported the smell of burning plastic.  And then there were wisps of smoke.  And then, there it was:  a fire. The flames came from directly beneath G Block, from under the stands.  Nothing like wild panic ensued at first. The evacuation of G Block was orderly, given the circumstances. Some fans descended the stands, to climb a wall at the bottom and drop to the pitch; others were sent backward, toward the tunnels behind the stands where there were turnstiles and gates to exit the stadium.

Martin and his family were part of the crowd that was sent into the tunnels. In the meantime, the fire was spreading at incredible speed down the length of the stand, block after block, along with the roof, engulfed in flames. The doors in the back of the stadium, where the tunnels led, turned out to be locked. Martin was separated from the rest of his family. Things went black. Smoke poured in. He somehow found his way back toward the stands and the pitch. His father, brother, uncle, and grandfather all died moments later, their remains recovered at one of the turnstiles. A total of 56 people perished. The whole event unfolded live on television.

Fifty-Six is a book about that day and what it all meant. Fletcher's eyewitness account of the fire itself takes up just one chapter. What frames that day is compelling reading.

Father-Son Fandom

In the first part of this book, we get to know Martin and his family and their love of football and Bradford City. His childhood football indulgences are impressive. Being the same age as the author, but growing up in rural America at the time, I have to say his access to so much professional soccer, whether live games, broadcasts, or simple paraphernalia, while surrounded by a community of equally enthusiastic fans, was a joy to read about, even if it was nothing out of the ordinary for an English boy. In this sense, this first segment of Fifty-Six is not unlike Dave Roberts' The Bromley Boys or Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch. If I wasn't playing it myself, the only soccer I ever saw were satellite broadcasts of 1986 World Cup games, and I watched every single one of them and without any fellow fans in whom I could confide. With no Panini sticker books around, baseball cards would have to do.

But there's more to these early chapters than just season tickets to football games, goals remembered, heroes worshiped. There is family. Fletcher's dad is brought to life as a fun-loving father, a fatalist who lives for the moment, and a successful salesman who finally gets his son to root for their family's hometown Division Three team, Bradford City. The story moves along sweetly here and inexorably, though, to the disaster at Valley Parade.

Down a Rabbit Hole of Shock and Grief

Some of the most gripping moments follow the aftermath of the fire. The second part of the book contains the best portrayal of shock and post-traumatic stress disorder I've ever read -- from the perspective of a young adolescent who has lost his father and his little brother, his uncle and grandfather. These pages are rich and gut-wrenching.

Here is how shock is for a 12-year-old boy, whose cap had burned off, whose ear and back were seared from dripping tar, who had just crawled out of the smoke-filled tunnels and was dragged across the pitch by life-saving fans, whose family were still somewhere inside those tunnels. Martin was screaming for his dad. And then, a man asks him:

"You OK, lad?"

"Yeah, I'm fine, thanks."

"You sure?" the man asked in disbelief.

I nodded, smiling, relieved to interact with the familiar world once more. "Do you think the second half will start soon?" I asked, as if we'd stand and watch it together.

He didn't know what to say to that, and after I repeated myself he asked, "Look, I can see you were in it, but have you actually seen the stand?"

"No, why?"

"I think you should, lad."

Through all the shock and grief that followed in the days, months, and years after that moment, Fletcher's love of football still shines, when you might expect a complete rejection of the sport or at least of Bradford City fandom. But neither is extinguished. Rather, football is one of his few escapes, something that resembles 90 minutes of normalcy in the midst of so much anger and sadness. Fletcher, along with his now-widowed mom who also lost her baby boy, has to somehow make a life together and carry on.

The Investigation

The third part of the book is Fletcher's search for the truth of what happened -- an obsession that occupied him throughout his thirties. As fate would have it, besides Bradford City, young Fletcher also rooted for Nottingham Forest. He was in the Forest stands at Hillsborough for a 1989 FA Cup semifinal and watched helplessly when that disaster unfolded for Liverpool fans on the opposite side, just four years after Bradford City. The anger returned: had everyone at Bradford died in vain? But Fletcher did not yet have the ability and tools to focus this anger into something productive, i.e., this book.

Eventually, Fletcher - grown up and educated - begins to ask tough questions about how that day at Valley Parade came to be. He digs out the report of the official inquiry, which lasted less than a week, and whose chair admonished from the get-go that blame would not be apportioned.

Here, your own anger builds as Fletcher dissects the report and finds it a shameful, glossed-over, phoned-in job. The report is satisfied that a cigarette, dropped through the wooden stands onto garbage that had collected below, started the fire. But Fletcher explains how suspect that theory is. This section also features a whirlwind review of attempts at regulating stadium safety in the UK and how recommendations after earlier disasters never evolved into anything very enforceable. Voluntary compliance ruled the day, especially in Thatcher's England.

Among the revelations that Fletcher himself uncovers, not touched upon at all by the official report, and which made headlines in the UK when this book was published last year: Bradford City's owner at the time of the fire, Stafford Heginbotham, had seen at least eight of his properties or properties with which he was involved go up in flames in the two decades preceding the Valley Parade disaster. From those fires, he had collected millions in insurance payouts. The Valley Parade payout was itself enormous. Fletcher never outright accuses Heginbotham of starting the fire intentionally. But he quite correctly asks why the official inquiry never even considered the import of this spate of impossibly bad luck following Heginbotham around. Perhaps Heginbotham should have been, at the very least, a little more fire-hazard-conscious, especially with Valley Parade already cited by local officials as an accident waiting to happen?

Fletcher's book raises more questions than it answers. And the result, thankfully, is a promising new signal from the UK government that an independent inquiry into the Bradford fire may still be launched, just as was ultimately forced for the Hillsborough disaster. This signal comes despite the inquiry chair Lord Justice Oliver Popplewell and Heginbotham's son (Heginbotham himself would die in 1995) roundly attacking Martin Fletcher and his book as "ridiculous" and "nonsense."

Once you start reading this book, you will not put it down. And you'll be aching for more. Fletcher's hunger for the truth is contagious. If this was only an investigative journalism piece, however, it wouldn't quite make the canonical cut. There are points in the investigative portion that beg Fletcher - or anybody - to go out and interview people whose inconsistent testimony in the official inquiry was never challenged. Alas, his project stopped short of that. Though it comes closer than anything to date, a definitive exposition of the disaster, this is not. It is so much more than that. Fifty-Six is also an intense memoir of football fandom, family, and trauma.

You can read an excerpt from Fifty-Six here.

An ITV news broadcast about Fifty-Six, featuring the reactions of Popplewell and Heginbotham's son, is here.