Blaze heroes will never be forgotten

Fifty-seven years ago, today, a blaze in a bonded warehouse in Glasgow claimed the lives of 19 Fire Service personnel, making it Britain's worst peacetime fire services disaster.

The blaze, in Cheapside Street, Anderston, was first spotted at 7.15pm, by the foreman of the nearby Eldorado Ice Cream Company, who reported smoke coming from a second-floor window of the warehouse. In response two pumps from West Station, with Sub Officer James Calder in charge, were sent, along with a turntable ladder from Central Station. Also, responding initially was the Fire Boat 'St Mungo' and a Salvage Tender and crew of the Glasgow Salvage Corps, then based in Albion Street.

The bond, which belonged to Arbuckle, Smith and Co. contained over a million gallons of whisky held in 21,000 wooden casks, and 30,000 gallons of rum.

First on the scene

The first fire crews arrived at 7.21pm and after a quick reconnaissance three more pumps were requested to attend. Crews were informed by locals that smoke and flame had been seen on the Warroch Street side of the building and additional crews and equipment were sent to investigate.

Due to the narrowness of the surrounding streets, the height of the building, and the tight security in place to protect the sleeping spirits from light fingers, the firefighters were already struggling to dowse the growing inferno. The windows were barred with iron grates, and the heavy wooden doors locked tight.

Assistant Firemaster John Swanson had now arrived on the scene and, realising the scale of the task at hand, immediately radioed more fire engines, bringing the total to eight. This message was sent at 7.49pm.

Seconds after it was transmitted, all hell broke loose.

Blast claimed 19 lives

As the temperature of the fire increased, the spirit casks in the warehouse had begun to rupture. This not only sent rivers of burning alcohol down the street, but caused a dangerous build-up of fumes within the building. Suddenly, without warning, a massive explosion caused the front and rear walls of the bond to burst outwards, sending tons of masonry falling into the surrounding streets. This collapse instantly killed three firemen in Cheapside Street as well as 11 firemen and five salvagemen who were battling the blaze from Warrach Street.

One of the turntable engines, and its brave crew, was completely buried by the falling masonry.

Recalling that fateful night 50 years later, Mr Swanson said: “There was a roar similar to thunder, and then a long ‘swish’ or ‘boom’ that caused me to look up and see what was happening. When I did so, I saw the entire frontage of Section 1 of the bond building blow out onto Cheapside Street. I saw a turntable ladder that had been in the middle of the street being completely enveloped by tons of fallen bricks, masonry and dust. I heard screams and then there was a sudden silence.”

Driver Bob Scouller of the Glasgow Salvage Corps, said: "The buildings seemed to make me sort of shiver a wee bit. I said to myself ‘I’m going back.’ I turned and I started to walk back up, and as I came near the turntable ladder there were four firemen. They were trying to get into a grill in a window and were hammering away with their little axes. They said: ‘Driver, could you get us an axe?’ ... The four of them were buried right in front of my eyes. There was nothing I could do. They were all gone.”

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A miraculous escape

Peter McGill, station officer at Central Fire Station, was already inside the warehouse when the explosion came.

In his statement to the fire inquiry, he wrote: “I heard a rumble and a crash of walls collapsing. We all ran out and I heard a cry of ‘Help!’. I saw then that the wall of what I now know is Section 1 had collapsed. “I ran around in the direction from which I had heard the cry for help, and I saw the turntable ladder was engulfed by masonry. “There were a group of firemen standing around Fireman Biggerstaff. He was buried up to his waist and was the person who had been calling for help. He was calling for a tourniquet to apply to his leg.

Fireman Biggerstaff was one of the lucky ones. Thanks to the quick actions of his colleagues, he survived that night. Many of his friends and comrades weren’t so lucky.

Visible across the city

As the fire intensified, witnesses reported seeing bright blue flames leaping forty feet into the sky, with the glow visible across the entire city. Neighbouring buildings, including a tobacco warehouse, the ice cream factory and the Harland and Wolff engine works, were engulfed.

Despite the loss of their comrades, the city’s fire teams knew they were fighting a battle, and had to get on with the job.

Fireman James Dunlop, who won the George Medal for his bravery that night: said: "It was a very sudden and unexpected explosion that took us by surprise. It took us a few moments to realise that it had occurred. To me it wasn't scary after that. There was a determination to beat this fire. We put things aside and got on with the job.

“We were all in position when the explosion occurred. It was like all hell was let loose. I had put a man on the turntable ladder but rather than evacuate my position I got the chap down. I got a pat on the head from the Queen for that. The whisky barrels were falling out of the building and bursting into flames. It was like bombs going off.”

Heart-break and heroism

Heart-breaking as it was, it was decided it would be too dangerous for any attempt to rescue survivors or recover bodies while the fire was still raging.

The warehouse contained over a million gallons of whisky and rum under one roof. This burned out of control for several hours, as off-duty firefighters from Glasgow and fire brigades from the surrounding areas were called in to assist. In total, thirty pumping appliances, five turntable ladders and four support vehicles were sent to the scene from around the area.

By now, the whole city could see the orange glow in the sky, with those downwind of the blaze scenting the caramelised smell of burning sugars and spirits.

At the height of the blaze, 450 firefighters from the Greater Clyde valley were involved in fighting the fire.

The aftermath…

By 6.15am the following morning, the bulk of the fire was extinguished, but dampening down work went on for a week.

Then came the painful task of informing the wives and families of the dead men. Eighteen of the victims were married and 13 were fathers. Station Officer Bob Aitken had to visit the homes of about seven of the dead firemen. He said: “The Central Fire Station, it was like a pit disaster, with all the women there asking ‘What’s happening, what’s happening?’"

William Oliver was just nine when his father, also William and a member of the Salvage Corps, was killed. He was in bed when his mother received the news. “I remember wakening up and hearing what I thought was hysterical laughter. My mother had a laugh that on more than one occasion stopped the show in the Pavilion Theatre,” he said.

The next morning, Mrs Oliver came to his room, and he found out her sounds had not been laughter.

City fell silent

Seven days later, the entire city fell silent for the fire fighters’ funerals. Fire brigades and other well-wishers from across the UK and the Continent sent almost 400 wreaths to Glasgow. Flags across the city flew at half-mast and about 16,000 people lined High Street and Cathedral Square in silence to watch the funeral cortege, which stretched more than 400 yards, pass by.

For weeks after the tragedy, collection boxes were to be found in almost every city pub and shop, and Glaswegians dug deep to raise funds for the bereaved families. No cause was ever found for the fire, but an electrical fault or dropped light were thought most likely.

If you are ever up in the Necropolis, take time to seek out the Fire Service memorial. Read the names of the fallen, and turn to look out over the city they lived in, loved, and fought and died to protect.

The roll of honour

Those who lost their lives: Glasgow Fire Service Sub Officers James Calder and John McPherson and Firemen Christopher Boyle, Alexander Grassie, Edward McMillan, Ian McMillan, William Watson, John Allan, Gordon Chapman, William Crocket, Archibald Darroch, Daniel Davidson, Alfred Dickinson and George McIntyre.

Glasgow Salvage Corps Deputy Salvage Officer, Superintendent Edward Murray, Leading Salvageman James McLellan and Salvagemen Gordon McMillan, James Mungall and William Oliver.

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