When Tragedy Comes

It was about quarter to five on Saturday 11th May and we had just switched on Grandstand to get the final scores. I wasn’t yet attending football games but I had followed my football team, Bradford City’s fortunes with pride that season as they had stormed to the old Division 3 title.  It was the last day of the season and they had received the trophy at the start of the game. It was long before social media and so we were completely unready for the news that we tuned into. We didn’t even expect City to get more than the briefest mention, never mind be the main headline on the News that followed. 

During the game, a fire had started in the old wooden main stand. It had quickly got out of control ripping through the whole stand and destroying it.  That afternoon 56 lives were lost in the fire and many more people suffered horrendous injuries.  It was devastating not just for the football club and its supporters but for the wider community in the city.  I doubt there were few families unaffected in some way by the fire.

I went to school on the Monday and my mum said “You know, there may be friends at school who have been affected. You need to be ready to support them.” Again, we were not ready for the shock that hit us.  Our class were gathered together. Adrian Wright, one of our classmates who sat at my table had been in the fire, both he and his grandad had failed to make it out alive. The devastation to a class of 10-11 year olds was huge. Some of us may have lost grandparents in the past but this probably our first encounter with the full horror of death.

Rather than being there to comfort friends, I was weeping too. We comforted each other.

Over the next few days we responded to the tragedy. There was an assembly for the whole school later in the day.  A disaster fund had been set up and we contributed to it. We were given the opportunity to go down to the ground together to lay flowers.  There was numbness, tears, cling to one another for comfort and there were all sorts of rumours that went around.

We all face little tragedies in our lives, the untimely death of a loved one, the burning down of a family home, a terminal illness in the family. Today, I am thinking particularly about our response to tragedies or disasters that affect a whole community.  

Here we are commemorating a tragedy that struck 35 years ago today in the middle of another tragedy that is striking right now and that we are all living through.

So, here are some reflections

  • We can be overwhelmed on two levels. There is the shear scale of suffering and loss.  The 56 lives lost at Bradford, the 96 at Hillsborough, just the numbers were disturbing. Then there were the many who witnessed those horrific events unfold, at the ground and on TV.  However, we must not forget that a large tragedy is made up of many little tragedies. We can simply get overwhelmed by the 30,000 deaths in the UK and the many more globally and the many more around the world but forget that every death brings personal loss to a family. There are grieving parents, grandparents, children and grandchildren. There are friends just getting the devastating news that someone they care about has not made it.
  • The deaths and the grief are real, tragedy is not some distant or hypothetical event. Being only 10 at the time and not having twitter, Facebook and blogs to provide a running commentary, I don’t know if anyone out there was speculating that the Fire Disaster, or later Hillsborough were somehow acts of divine judgement on football (maybe for hooliganism or Sunday sport).  I hope that this wasn’t happening.  I think if it had, then it would have added an extra layer of devastation to an already unbearable situation. I worry when Christians go straight to their judgement response.  It suggests a lack of love and a concerning inability to empathise.  Now is the time for grieving together and offering comfort.
  • Further, I would point us to Luke 13 as a reminder both that tragedies are not specific judgements on the victims but at the same time remind all of us of the fallen state of our world, the fragility of life and the necessity of  personal repentance.
  • Many tragedies and disasters are either man-made or exacerbated by human behaviours.  Our sense of collective grief should not preclude justice. There should be careful enquiries and responsibility identified.  It is important that this is done carefully, at the right time and in the right way. It should be led by evidence not emotion and speculation.  This protects against false blame being placed on the innocent as happened at Hillsborough.
  • When a disaster hits our community, we are affected too and so the first thing we do is share in the loss and grief together. Of course as Christians we want to offer hope and practical help but first of all we need to realise that we too are affected and we too may need help and support.
  • The pain, trauma and loss may well have long term affects. We are only now beginning to recognise the full implications of PTSD.  Even if someone does not suffer a long term chronic form of PTSD, memories, distress and fear can be triggered at any time in the future.  We are left with scars. Scars are no bad thing though.  Jesus our saviour carries the scars of Calvary still. Matt Redman sings “Our scars are a sign of grace in our lives.”
  • The opportunity to pause and remember collectively is essential to our sense of humanity and community. Going to the ground helped as did the later memorial services. Each year we remember. There will be services and silences today. That’s why it is so important that in the future we build in opportunities, first to remember and grieve coronavirus.
  • Even successes draw attention and bring to the surface past sadness and pain. Life is connected together. It was 2013 and our team were at Wembley. It seemed though that the success of a cup run to the final with giant killing wins along the way, plus a successful promotion run via the play-offs served to remind us all of those terrible events back in 1985. So, there we were at Wembley 7 years ago this month. We were 3-0 up and the ground was filled with the noise of thousands of fans standing in the 56th minute to applaud, people who were there on the day, people who bore physical and emotional scars, fans born long after the event with no personal recollections, supporters of a rival team who had been jeering and taunting us earlier in the day. And we weren’t just clapping as we remembered the 56 but many of us were crying again too.
  • There is hope.  Many families and friends were devastated by the fire but there has been healing.  Over the years, many families, friends and eye witnessed from the day have overcome emotional obstacles and returned to the ground and to matchday. It is possible to overcome fear.  A new stadium arose from the ashes and a football club has gone on to play in the Premier League and make it to Wembley on four occasions (including one major cup final). Life will go on. As I keep saying #SummerIsComing. For believers, the hope of a better day now is a foretaste of that greater day to come when Christ will wipe away all tears and suffering will end for ever.

This May 11th, I will pause to remember Adrian and the others who died in the fire.  As I do, I will also be thinking about the many affected by Coronavirus. I will be reminded again that we live in a fallen world with pain, suffering and grief. I will pray “Come Lord Jesus” and be encouraged again to find hope and comfort in him alone.

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