A survivor of the 1985 fire at Bradford City in which 56 people died has profoundly criticised the judge who conducted the official inquiry into that disaster and who this week unfavourably compared the response of families bereaved by the Hillsborough disaster to those of Bradford. Martin Fletcher, who lost four close relatives in the fire, pointed out that Mr Justice Popplewell's report had failed to overhaul safety at football grounds and have fences in front of stands removed, and that Hillsborough then happened four years later.
Fletcher was 12 when he emerged alive from Valley Parade's inferno, but his father, John, brother Andrew, grandfather Eddie and uncle Peter, with whom he had been attending the Third Division match between Bradford City and Lincoln City, all died. He was also at the FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough four years later, at which 96 Liverpool supporters died.
"For Popplewell to say that the Hillsborough families are 'harbouring conspiracy theories' while the Bradford families 'organised a sensible compensation scheme and moved on', is an absolute travesty of the truth and a disgrace," Fletcher said.
"I have many unanswered questions still about the fire in which four of my family died, as does my mother. Popplewell's report was nowhere close to the quality of Lord Justice Taylor's report after Hillsborough, and since reading it as an adult I have always been very disappointed in it and considered it a poor piece of work.
"Rather than lecture the Hillsborough families not to ask questions, the judge should ask himself why, after a disaster caused by a negligent approach to safety at football, despite his report, standards in football were allowed to remain so lamentably poor that another disaster happened at Hillsborough just four years later."
Fletcher, now an accountant, also wholly rejected Popplewell's assertion that "a sensible compensation scheme" was organised after Bradford. In fact, there was a charitable disaster appeal, no organised compensation scheme, and his mother, Susan, took a negligence action, which she had to fund herself, against the club and West Yorkshire county council, for its safety oversight of Valley Parade.
In the high court, both were found to have been negligent in allowing litter to build up over many years under the void of the club's wooden main stand, and to have done nothing to clear it despite explicit written warnings that it was a fire risk. Two years later, the club were found to be two-thirds liable, the council one third.
Popplewell, in his report, wrote that his task was "not to allocate blame", and that he was sympathetic to the club, saying that lower division football was "run on shoestring".
That season Bradford City, owned by the motor trade entrepreneur Jack Tordoff and the chairman Stafford Heginbotham, fielded a side good enough to win the Third Division championship (what is now League One), while doing little safety or maintenance work on the ground.
After the fire, Valley Parade was rebuilt with public grants and insurance money, and Popplewell himself returned to Bradford to open it. Shortly afterwards, Heginbotham and Tordoff sold their shares in the club at a profit.
Fletcher has spent years in his 20s and 30s trying to understand the disaster, including a detailed reading of Popplewell's report and the evidence given to the inquiry, which has left him deeply dissatisfied.
The judge held his inquiry just over three weeks after the fire, and it lasted little more than a week. After Hillsborough, the West Midlands police force was appointed to investigate independently, three months were spent gathering evidence and Taylor heard arguments in detail in his inquiry over several weeks.
Taylor's report clearly identified who was to blame and how the disaster happened, which the bereaved Hillsborough families are able to point to 22 years later, in their fight to understand why nobody in authority took responsibility, with South Yorkshire police instead blaming the disaster on supporters.
Fletcher argues Popplewell's inquiry was too quick, he believes there should have been an independent investigating police force brought in, and he is frustrated by what he feels is Popplewell's failure to allocate responsibility clearly.
"He stated that a discarded cigarette was the likely cause, but never identified the smoker or detailed the circumstances in which that happened. Nor did he properly expose and allocate blame for the scale of negligence which lay behind the disaster."
Fletcher, who had family in Bradford but grew up in Nottingham, was in the Forest end at Hillsborough.
"I cried after that, in my mother's car, asking why, as people had survived at Bradford because there were no fences in front of the main stand, there were still fences up at football grounds four years later. Popplewell made precious few useful safety recommendations, and instead, soon after that, football supporters were going to have an identity card-type scheme imposed on them.
"Taylor, after Hillsborough, emphatically insisted that football must be forced by legislation wholly to improve its safety culture. Popplewell did no such thing after Bradford, and when he talks about 'moving on', yes, supporters moved on to another disaster, in which 96 people were killed.
"He should be asking himself some searching questions, rather than lecture the families bereaved by the Hillsborough disaster that they should just accept it.
"In all these years, Popplewell has never spoken to me or my mother, who lost four family members. He should not presume to speak on our behalf. Perhaps he should act with 'quiet dignity' himself."
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