By Tom Jenson
Fire Code Specialist
On Saturday May 11, 1985, the Bradford City Football Club hosted Lincoln City at Valley Parade Stadium in England in the final game of the season. At 3:40 p.m., TV commentator John Helm commented on a small fire in the main grandstand, and less than four minutes later, the entire wooden bleachers and wooden roof canopy of the main grandstand was engulfed in flames. This fire killed 56, many at locked exits or still in their seats. The fire also injured 265. You can still watch the actual broadcast of the game, but beware that it contains graphic images.
This wooden structure was constructed in 1911; could seat 5,300 fans; and had standing space in front, known as the paddock, for 7,000 more fans. It is unknown how many fans were in the main grandstand.
As I've stated in past articles, these assembly occupancy fires were preventable. This one started with a lit cigarette that was not completely extinguished falling into the combustible litter under the wooden bleachers. Attempts to put the fire out with coffee failed.
This is another case of “what could go wrong did go wrong."
- Warnings by the county engineer of litter building up under the bleachers:
Lack of fire extinguishers in passageways for fear of vandalism.
Main exits at the back of the stands were locked or blocked, and no stewards were present to open them.
This fire led to new safety standards in the United Kingdom, including banning the construction of new wooden grandstands. It also led to new techniques in the treatment of burn victims led by Professor David Sharpe.
So, are there any wooden outdoor stadiums and grandstands in Minnesota towns and schools? Do you inspect your stadiums and grandstands prior to the start of a new season? Do you review their emergency plan and require crowd managers for outdoor events over 1,000 people?
The Minnesota State Fire Code has several sections that apply to outdoor assembly occupancies, including:
Section 304.1.3 - spaces underneath grandstands free of combustibles.
Section 1029.1.1.1 - fire barrier separation required under grandstands and bleachers.
Section 1104 - means of egress for existing buildings (number of exits, width, travel distances).
Sections 403.2, 403.12 and 403.12.3 - emergency planning and preparedness.
For more information on this fire go to this page on Wikipedia. I recommend reading the decision by the courts and “a duty to the spectators and other persons in the stands."
You can reach our fire code team at email@example.com.