Survivor of the Cheapside disaster

Survivor of the Cheapside disaster

Born: February 22, 1929; Died: March 31, 2014

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Joseph (Joe) Smith, who has died aged 85, was one of a seven-strong squad from Glasgow Salvage Corps summoned to the report of a fire in a whisky bond on the north bank of the River Clyde in Glasgow on the evening of March 28, 1960. The incident became known as the Cheapside Street Disaster and it resulted in the biggest loss of life in the peacetime history of the UK Fire Service. Fourteen firefighters and five salvage men were killed when the bond exploded.

Mr Smith was buried under the rubble that killed five of his colleagues in Warroch Street (on the opposite side of the bond from Cheapside Street). He survived, and devoted the rest of his life to commemorating the sacrifice of those who died at the site and working for the welfare of their families.

He spent his early years in Golspie Street in Govan, and was educated at the Hills Trust School and Govan High School. He had several jobs that included delivering goods by horse and cart in Hillington Industrial Estate and working as a welder at Stephen's shipyard. In 1947 he started his national service as an able seaman with the Royal Navy.

When he left the navy in 1949, he joined Glasgow Salvage Corps. Glasgow, apart from London and Liverpool, was the only UK city to employ such corps to protect warehouse and factory stock from fire and the effects of firefighting.

In a television documentary and the book Tinderbox Heroes, he described how he had been helping firefighters move a length of hose when the five Salvage Corps colleagues who would lose their lives approached him. "I needed a hand so I said to them, kidding on, "Where have you been?" They were about 15 to 20 feet from me when the building exploded. When I came to, the debris was all over me. I was on the ground but I didn't know much about that."

Newspapers carried photographs of Mr Smith, with bloodied face, being carried on a stretcher to an ambulance. He was taken to hospital but, surprisingly, quickly allowed home. When his wife Margaret, whom he had married in 1955, turned up to visit him, she was told he was "gone". For a moment she thought her husband was dead until the nurse explained that he was safe and heading back to the house.

Mr Smith remained with the corps until it was disbanded in 1984, rising to the rank of deputy superintendent. With the corps no longer in existence, he moved to Strathclyde Fire Brigade as fire damage control instructor.

Retirement from the brigade in 1987 did not mean a severing of links with the fire service. Mr Smith became an active member of the Aye Ready retirees association, holding the post of chairman for the last ten years. He was also a persuasive fundraiser for the service's widows' and orphans' fund.

His friend Bill Wilson, who worked with him as secretary in the Aye Ready, said: "When Joe approached you didn't hold your hand out to shake his but reached for your wallet because he always had a fire service badge or some other item to sell you."

Bill Wilson said Mr Smith was a private person: "I remember once asking him what it was like to be the only soldier in his squad who has survived a shell blast. He replied 'Och, you just get on with it.'

"But I found that after Cheapside Street, he wanted to make sure that those guys were never forgotten and he'd do everything possible for their families. Even when a 25th anniversary service in Glasgow Cathedral was supposed to mark an end to the commemorations, he wouldn't have it, and he kept going to lay a wreath at the memorial at the necropolis every 28th of March. I also discovered on the 50th anniversary in 2010, that each March 28th he'd visit Cheapside Street and have a moment to himself."

Mr Smith loved the works of Robert Burns. He made his home a shrine to the Bard, with a large collection of books and memorabilia. He and Salvage Corps colleague John Brown organised a Burns Supper every year for the corps, and that event became the template for the successful Burns Suppers organised by Strathclyde Fire & Rescue and, now, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service.

Members of the SFRS formed a guard of honour and were pall bearers at Mr Smith's funeral at the Linn Crematorium. The service was attended by a large number of senior officers and other personnel.

He is survived by Margaret, his children Maureen and Jim, and grandchildren Ashleigh and Craig.