IT remains Scotland's worst hotel fire since the Second World War, and claimed the lives of 10 tourists visiting the Highlands.

But the blaze which swept through the Esplanade Hotel in Oban 40 years ago today also helped to define our current fire safety culture.

New safety measures were in the process of being implemented when, on July 24, 1973, fire engulfed much of the five-storey hotel, situated on Oban's seafront. Nine guests lost their lives at the scene and one died later in hospital.

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Donald Malloch, 74, was a leading fireman who attended the blaze. Now retired, Mr Malloch said yesterday the fire had helped to accelerate the implementation of new fire regulations, which were coming into force at the time.

He said: "It all happened so quickly. It really was a sort of blur and you try to forget about it.

"The hotel was converted into flats, but if I go down the lane at the side it is hard not to think about it."

Mr Malloch described the blaze as "the worst fire I had dealt with in my time".

The alarm was raised when a sailor on his yacht in Oban Bay saw a glow in the first floor reception area of the hotel at about 3.15am. He sent one of his crew ashore to raise the alarm and also sounded his fog horn.

Forty-two people from Cornwall, Devon and Somerset who were on a Greenslades Coaches tour were in the hotel, as were two families.

One was a couple from Coventry with their six-year-old son. They managed to escape when the man jumped onto a roof that projected out from the building and his wife dropped their son to him before jumping down herself.

That night Mr Malloch was at the back of the hotel where another fireman was rescuing a female guest. "When they were halfway down the woman collapsed and her legs went through the rungs, so I went up to help and as we were coming down, the wooden ladder broke and we all fell down," he said.

Four years before, on Boxing Day 1969, a hotel fire at the Rose and Crown Hotel, in Saffron Walden in Essex, caused the death of 11 guests.

It led to the passing of the Fire Precaution Act 1971, which came into force the following year. The new act required hoteliers to obtain a fire certificate from the fire brigade.

Heeding the new legislation, in September 1972 the owner of The Esplanade Hotel sought the advice of the fire service on the necessary safety improvements. There was an inspection of the hotel and recommendations were made.

However, the improvements had not been made by the time of the fire, although they had been scheduled for later that year.

In October 1973, after hearing six days of evidence, the jury at a fatal accident inquiry (FAI) into the Oban fire returned a verdict finding that the cause of the fire was on the balance of probability a dropped light somewhere in the foyer/reception area.

It found that no fault or negligence could be attributed to the hotel and all reasonable improvements were in hand. The jury also noted its confidence in the emergency services.

Mr Malloch said: "I think it really accelerated the implementation of the new fire regulations that were coming in at that time."

He said it had particularly tightened up the recording of times of call-outs, which was an area of disagreement at the FAI.

Leslie Mutch, a Ross-shire-based historian of the fire service who has been studying the Esplanade Hotel tragedy, has shared his research with The Herald.

He said the woman on the ladder had been seen at a top floor rear window with her husband. But the man had disappeared from the window and into the smoke. Firemen could not enter the hotel until flames could be quelled.

Mr Mutch said that Station Officer Joseph Simpson had been vindicated in his decision to commit both Oban appliances initially to the rear of the hotel.

"This decision was fully 
borne out by later knowledge that seven of the ten who lost their lives were found at the back," he said.