‘Thank you for saving my life...’ Bradford fire survivor's message to former Bantams striker nearly three decades on (From Bradford Telegraph and Argus)
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‘Thank you for saving my life...’ Bradford fire survivor's message to former Bantams striker John Hawley nearly three decades on
MOVING MOMENT: This picture speaks volumes as Arnold Whitehead (accompanied by son-in-law Paul Firth) is reunited with John Hawley
It was meant as a present to celebrate Arnold Whitehead’s 65th birthday.
It ended up in tragedy when 56 people perished in the Valley Parade fire.
But amid all the horror and the grief, there were numerous acts of bravery and heroism that will never be forgotten by those involved.
Thanks to one of those selfless individuals, Arnold was rescued from the blaze. Now 93, he knew the identity of his saviour – every Bradford City fan would – but had never met him personally to say thank you.
Arnold lived to tell the tale thanks to John Hawley, City’s centre forward at the time. Twenty eight years on, a television programme put them together back at Valley Parade for an emotional reunion.
“It brought it home to me how real it was,” said Hawley, who now runs an auctioneers business in East Yorkshire. “It was such a pleasure to meet a gentleman so full of life.”
The story began on the fateful afternoon on May 11, 1985 as Arnold took his seat in the main stand – paid for by daughter Ann – alongside son-in-law Paul Firth and his friend Robert Hamilton.
Arnold, a long-time supporter who had watched his first game in 1929, was soaking up the atmosphere as City celebrated winning the Third Division. When the first wisps of smoke appeared in the next section, he initially thought little of it.
He recalled: “We kept our eyes on it but weren’t too bothered until a policeman came and stood nearby. Then we got the impression it was a bit more important.
“The seats were getting warmer. I put my hand between my legs and the wood suddenly felt very hot so I said to Paul ‘I think it was time we were moving’.”
Paul and Robert headed for the concrete walkway at the back of the stand but Arnold did not follow. They became separated as the smoke billowed.
“Somebody told me that the quickest way out of this predicament was to go on to the pitch. In doing so I had to negotiate rows of seats and two five-foot drops.
“The fire was like a flame thrower and the wind was blowing it into the stand. So I knew I had to go against it – maybe that was my navy training.
“Unfortunately the wall leading on to the pitch came up to my chin and I couldn’t make it. I’d just run out of breath.”
That was when two burly arms suddenly reached through the blackness, lifting up Arnold by his armpits and throwing him on to the grass.
There was little time for gratitude as his rescuer Hawley moved on to grab others looking to escape.
“I had a bad burn on my head but I was lucky,” said Arnold, “though I did think for a while that I had gone blind.
"I’d been carrying my spectacles because I couldn’t see through the smoke. When I put them back on, I thought I’d lost sight in my left eye – it turned out to be a spot of bitumen from the roof that had landed on the lens and solidified.”
Arnold was reunited with the others much later in the day – Robert had found himself in the middle of the city with no memory of how he had got there.
For Hawley, much of that day remains a blur. He believes his memory has deliberately blocked out some of the horror.
He said: “It must be some sort of protective element. I do have vague recollections but nothing more.
“I got some letters from people to thank me so I knew I’d done it but my memory is very selective. It’s not great for many other things.
“I do remember my five-year-old son Adam was in the stand. He was very fortunate.
“When I couldn’t get near enough to help any more, I turned round and the field was just a mass of people. But luckily one of the girls who worked at the club knew Adam and she had spotted him sat in the goalmouth.”
Arnold had written to the club in the aftermath to praise the efforts in saving him. But he had to wait until June last year to finally meet his rescuer again.
Brought together for “Real Lives Reunited”, it was filmed as it happened with no second takes or a script on what to say to each other.
“The emotion, the gratitude and the modesty are equally plain to see and so obviously genuine,” said Paul, who accompanied his father-in-law.
Hawley has never watched television footage of the fire. “I’m not sure I ever want to,” he said.
But he was delighted to meet someone who will be forever grateful for his courage.
Arnold added: “It was lovely that I was able to thank him personally after all these years. He said that anybody would have done what he did but I’m not so sure.”
The programme will be shown on BBC1 on Monday at 11.45am.
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