Page last updated at 10:49 GMT, Friday, 26 March 2010

Anniversary of fire tragedy marked

"Tinderbox Heroes" cover
A book on the tragedy, Tinderbox Heroes, has been published by Strathclyde Fire and Rescue's Retired Employees' Association

By Alan Forbes
Public affairs manager of Strathclyde Fire and Rescue

This weekend in Glasgow, a small group of elderly men will meet again after many years and discuss their careers in the fire service.

The main topic of conversation will be the event that has brought them together: the whisky bond explosion that killed 14 firemen and five members of Glasgow Salvage Corps.

What was to become known as the Cheapside Street Disaster happened 50 years ago this Sunday.

The 19 deaths still stand as the highest number of fatalities in the peacetime history of the British Fire Service.

It was just before 1915 GMT on 28 March 1960 that the smell of burning wood was noticed by George Pinkstone, depot superintendent of the Eldorado Ice Cream Company, located in Cheapside Street, just off Anderston Quay on the north bank of the River Clyde.

Pinkstone saw smoke issuing from a window of the adjoining warehouse belonging to Arbuckle, Smith & Co Ltd, so he dialled 999 for the fire service.

Cheapside fire
The loss of life was the worst peacetime tragedy for the British Fire Service

Three minutes later fire engines from the Glasgow Fire Service and a tender of Glasgow Salvage Corps arrived at the scene.

From that point, a relentless search was made for the seat of the fire, somewhere in the bond containing more than a million gallons of proof whisky and 31,000 gallons of rum.

The managing director of Arbuckle, Smith & Co offered to help the firemen but directed them mistakenly to an adjoining tobacco warehouse.

With precious minutes ticking away, firemen in breathing apparatus continued the search inside the bond while extra crews arrived in their fire engines.

About half an hour after the 999 call, firemen in Warroch Street, at the rear of the bond, spotted flames flicking across the ceiling inside the ground floor of the building.

A ladder was placed against a window and firemen were about to train a hose on the flames when the Cheapside Street Disaster occurred.

Suddenly and without warning, the 60ft-high walls of the bond blew out onto Cheapside and Warroch streets.

In Cheapside Street, three firemen were killed under falling masonry which also wrecked a new turntable ladder.

In Warroch Street the death toll was worse - 11 firemen and all five Salvage Corps victims were killed instantly.

'Miraculous escape'

In Warroch Street, Raymond Ferrari, not long out of the Scottish Fire Service College, was blown under a turntable ladder.

Salvageman Joe Smith was buried up to his waist in rubble but miraculously lived to resume his career after recovering from his injuries.

The explosion was followed by a ferocious blaze as whisky barrels tumbled out of the bond, smashing in the street.

James Dunlop, who had completed his training the previous day, was the driver of the South Fire Station's turntable ladder in Warroch Street.

Firefighters tackle the blaze at the whisky bond
The fire service personnel died in an explosion at the whisky bond

His colleague William Watters was at the top of the fully-extended ladder when the walls blew out, damaging the front of the turntable ladder.

The officer in charge of the turntable shouted to Watters to climb down the ladder but Dunlop was determined to bring him to safety by lowering the ladder.

This was no simple task as the turntable ladder's engine had cut out and burning whisky was flowing towards it.

Dunlop pressed an emergency button to restart the engine and then brought Watters safely to the ground. Dunlop received the George Medal - the highest civilian award for bravery.

With the help of the fire boat St Mungo, which fed water from the Clyde fire engines, the men of Glasgow Fire Service battled the enormous blaze through the night until it was brought under control at 0618 GMT in the morning.

Nationwide mourning

Firemaster Martin Chadwick praised the "most tenacious and resourceful response by all ranks" which had led to the fire being prevented from spreading to neighbouring bonds and engineering works.

The tragedy left Glasgow - the notorious "Tinderbox City" - stunned and the whole of Scotland in mourning.

In the space of a week, the funeral for the 19 was organised.

Tens of thousands of people lined the streets as the cortege made its way to Glasgow Cathedral and then on to the Necropolis where the fallen were interred together in a specially-prepared vault.

On Sunday, Raymond Ferrari, Joe Smith and James Dunlop will join fellow Cheapside veterans and members of Strathclyde Fire and Rescue for a ceremony at the Cheapside Street Memorial at the Necropolis.

The party will then move to the cathedral where more than 600 people will take part in a memorial service.

This will be followed by a parade by firefighters at George Square in front of Lord Provost Bob Winter and Community Safety Minister Fergus Ewing MSP and the unveiling of a granite plaque which will later be placed close to Cheapside Street.

Other events to mark Cheapside Street include an exhibition at Glasgow's Mitchell Library which will run through April and publication of a book, Tinderbox Heroes, by Strathclyde Fire and Rescue's Retired Employees' Association.

Tinderbox Heroes was written by Alan Forbes and James Smith.

A special programme - The Night Glasgow Burned: The Cheapside Tragedy - will be shown at 1705 BST on Sunday on BBC 1 Scotland.

Print Sponsor

Ceremony to mark Cheapside fire
28 Mar 09 |  Glasgow, Lanarkshire and West

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