Kilbirnie Street fire deaths marked in 40th anniversary service
- 25 August 2012
- From the section Glasgow & West Scotland
A service is being held at Glasgow Cathedral to mark the 40th anniversary of a blaze in a warehouse in the city in which seven firemen died.
They were rescuing a trapped colleague when a flashover occurred - a burst of flame and intense heat up to 1,000 degrees.
Until then it had been a routine operation to tackle a relatively small blaze.
Fireman Hugh Welsh was one of the first to arrive on the scene in Kilbirnie Street on Glasgow's Southside, where fire had been reported in the attic of the three-storey warehouse.
He said fire crews were tackling the flames when it was realised the blaze was creeping around behind them.
Divisional Officer Andrew Quinn, who was leading the men, gave the order to withdraw as the heat of the fire, which had lit clothing and drapery, was so intense they were suffering burns to their skin.
"By this time, they realised someone was missing, and they started to look for him," said Mr Welsh, who retired from the fire service after almost 30 years.
The missing man was James Rook, who had been trapped by stock on a collapsed shelving unit.
A party of six firefighters went back into the burning attic - but things had already deteriorated, recalled Mr Welsh, who was awarded the Glasgow Corporation Bravery Medal for his efforts on that day.
"It was then that I noticed a small fire burning in the top corner of the back end of the building," he said. "So myself and another fireman got another line of hose and started to tackle the fire.
"But the fire just roared across the ceiling and we knew that something terrible had happened up the stairs."
It was a "flashover," a build up of heat in the plyboard ceiling which exploded, sending a blast of superhot air across the space the rescuers were working in.
Former Fire Brigade staff officer Jim Smith, one of the historians of Strathclyde Fire and Rescue Service, said it was a tragic end to their brave efforts as the men were making their way out with Fireman Rook, who had been rescued.
"Unfortunately, just as they were coming out with him, it flashed across the ceiling of the floor below, causing temperatures of 1,000 degrees," Mr Smith said.
"Door hinges melt at 850 degrees, so you're talking about an irrecoverable situation."
In the 1960s and 1970s, Glasgow had a reputation as a "tinderbox city", with several fires in old converted premises in the central business district.
But unlike others, such as the Cheapside Street whisky bond fire in 1961 and the James Watt Street blaze seven years later, there was no call for a change in legislation.
Survivor Hugh Welsh said the Kilbirnie Street fire was merely a tragic and unforeseeable accident.
"I hate to say it, but it was an ordinary fire," he added. "It was not any worse than fires I had been at or even attended after it. It was just a fire that went not the proper way."
He said he will remember the dead - all of whom he knew - at a rededicated memorial to them in Glasgow's Necropolis, followed by a service at the city's cathedral.