Beechmere fire: 'I just keep thinking, why has this happened?'

The remains of the Beechmere complex following the fire Image copyright Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service
Image caption A scene of devastation is left following the fire at Beechmere residential home

The homes and belongings of 150 older people were lost when a residential complex was destroyed in a huge fire. Wedding rings, old family photos and even the ashes of a late husband were among the treasured possessions that went up in smoke in the inferno in Crewe. A week on from the blaze, residents have spoken to the BBC about what happened.

Fred Chorlton, 88, was driving back from a shopping trip when he saw smoke in the distance, appearing to come from the retirement home where he had lived for nine years.

"I was travelling down Frank Webb Avenue, almost home, when I saw a plume of smoke coming from Beechmere," he said.

"I thought 'No, it can't be'. But it was."

Image copyright Fred Chorlton
Image caption Fred Chorlton said his flat was one of about 10 that survived the blaze

Inside the three-storey complex for people aged 65 and over, Doris Pay was in her friend Barbara Burrows' room, getting ready to go for dinner in the communal dining area when the fire alarms sounded.

The women poked their heads out of the door.

"There were nurses shouting, telling us to get out", said Mrs Pay, 65, who had only lived at Beechmere for six weeks.

Doing as they were told, they fled the building, Mrs Burrows leaving her walking stick behind in the rush.

'It was horrific'

The first 999 call came through to Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service's control room shortly after 16:30 BST on Thursday 8 August.

"It's the call that everybody dreads - you've got a care home alight," said chief fire officer Mark Cashin.

Image copyright Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service
Image caption The fire spread quickly after starting in the roof

Mrs Burrows' family were on holiday in Spain when the first pictures came on to TV news channels.

"It was like watching Grenfell. It was horrific," her daughter Beverley said.

"It was immediately what went through our minds. We were ringing round trying to find out about mum... but the signal wasn't great."

The first crews on the scene found the fire in the roof. It was well alight and rapidly spreading.

Avantage Cheshire Ltd, which runs the home, had a "stay put" policy in the event of a fire.

But Beechmere was timber framed and as the flames breached the roof and threatened to take over the top floor, the incident commander swiftly ordered a full evacuation.

Image copyright Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service
Image caption Less than six hours after the first 999 call, the building was destroyed by fire

That decision by the senior firefighter, who does not want to be identified, has been credited with saving countless lives.

Onlookers began to gather outside, including horrified relatives of those inside. Some ran into the burning building.

Lee Alexander James, whose grandmother was a resident, said: "We did what we could to get people out, opening doors, lifting people out."

Image caption Stefan and Joseph Rogerson are two brothers who helped residents during the evacuation

Stefan and Joseph Rogerson carried those who were unable to easily walk out of the home on wooden chairs.

Elizabeth Murphy, 88, said she remembered someone saying they would lift her over a fence to get her away from the fire.

"I said 'you're not lifting me', but my grandson had an angle grinder thing and managed to cut through the fence so we could get through."

Within two hours of that first call, a fifth of the building was alight and 60 firefighters were battling to contain flames as the roof collapsed.

Police closed roads around the complex, so Mr Chorlton abandoned his car and walked as near as he could to see the home on fire.

Image copyright PA Media
Image caption People living near the retirement complex were evacuated from their homes as the fire raged

As the residents gathered on the pavement, staff repeatedly took roll calls to check who had got out.

Incredibly, everyone had. They were taken by bus to The Lifestyle Centre, a nearby leisure centre.

The blaze continued to rage and the mammoth task of finding emergency accommodation for 150 elderly people began.

Townsfolk opened up their homes and offered spare beds, others managed to stay with relatives. Several were put up in hotels. Some, like Mr Chorlton, were found temporary accommodation at other sheltered housing complexes.

Image copyright PA Media
Image caption By the next day most of the building was gone with just the shell of it left

"I'm so thankful they had a room spare," Mr Chorlton said. "They've told me I can have it for as long as I want.

"Not everyone got that, though, some people had to sleep in the badminton court with mattresses laid down for them."

Less than six hours after the first emergency call, Beechmere had partially collapsed. Firefighters worked through the night and, by the next day, it was clear no residents would ever be returning.

Mrs Pay just had the clothes she was wearing and her handbag. When she looked through it, she discovered the necklace she had made during craft classes at Beechmere the day before the blaze broke out.

"It's all I've got left of the place now," she said.

Image caption Doris Pay made a necklace in a craft class at Beechmere the day before the fire

As well as losing all her belongings, she lost her husband's ashes.

"He died in 2015. I was going to have them interred in May but I wasn't quite ready to give them up.

"Now that can't happen, can it?"

Others have lost sentimental photographs and priceless jewellery.

"The most important things were my wedding ring and engagement ring," said Mrs Burrows. "My husband is no longer with us, you see, so those were really special."

For the things that can be replaced, however, a mammoth effort has been under way ever since the residents were forced to leave their homes.

Answering a call to action, the people of Crewe rallied round.

Hundreds of boxes of donations including clothing, bedding, toiletries and food were handed over to Crewe Town and Cheshire East councils, who have been running collection points for residents at the old library building and St Peter's Church.

Dozens of volunteers have been on hand to help the residents find what they need, including children on their summer holidays and a group of teenagers working with the Prince's Trust.

Image caption Young people from the Prince's Trust have been on hand to help sort donations

Accompanied by her daughter Beverley, Mrs Burrows collected a duvet, bags of food and a walking stick to replace the one that perished.

"It's the little things you don't think about until they've gone," she said.

'I just miss everyone'

Mr Chorlton, too, visited the collection point and found a blanket and some towels. He stayed for an hour to talk to volunteers.

Amid tears he said: "I just keeping thinking why, why has this happened?

"It's just not fair.

"Miraculously, my flat was one of about 10 that survived. I can see it when I go, it's still standing.

"I just miss everyone. We were a real family, the residents, the staff, the carers, you couldn't differentiate really, we were one and the same.

"I hope they get us to live altogether again. It was our own community. We've all dispersed now, all separated."

Helping dish out the donations is Helen Cookson.

Image caption Volunteer Helen Cookson said everyone in the community wanted to help

"I found out where the donations were being organised and thought I'd pop by to see if there was anything I could do.

"The community in Crewe goes back a long way and I think it's a northern thing, everyone wants to help."

A local non-league football club, Crewe FC, also set up a collection point at its Cumberland Arena. In the space of a few hours, it was overwhelmed by donations.

'Treasured things'

The town's mayor, Benn Minshall, said: "There is a lot of healing to do.

"We resent that the fire has happened but some good has come out of it to see how the community has come together.

"This is what Crewe is all about."

Image caption Crewe mayor Benn Minshall said there was a lot of healing to do

And it's not just the tangible goods the community is looking to replace. Staff from the Involvement Recovery and Wellness Centre are manning a desk at St Peter's to help residents come to terms with the tragedy.

"When something like this happens, you think about your safety first, your shelter, your food," said Katya Smirnova.

"It's only later when the psychological impact of what has happened begins to dawn on you and so we're here to try and help and signpost people to services they need.

"The other stuff, the emotional connection to the place, the relationships, all the treasured things you've lost - that realisation comes later," Ms Smirnova said.

Image caption Katya Smirnova and Lucy Twigg, from the Involvement, Recovery and Wellness Centre, have set up a desk at St Peter's Church

"People will be missing their friends, missing the people they would see and have lunch with every day," added Lucy Twigg.

Since the fire, Crewe and Nantwich Labour MP Laura Smith has called for sprinklers to be installed in buildings such as Beechmere.

Currently, regulations in England mean only buildings built since 2007 and which are taller than 30m (98ft) are required to have sprinklers fitted.

An investigation is under way to find out why the fire spread so quickly.

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Head of protection at Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service Lee Shears said: "Establishing the cause is our first priority and I'm confident that we will conclude this soon - what will take more time is understanding how the fire took hold in the way that it did.

"Fortunately, there is still a section of the building that remains intact, and that could be crucial in helping us to figure out what went wrong here."

For the residents, the mental scars will no doubt take some time to heal.

"I don't think it's quite sunk in yet with mum," Margaret Brown, daughter of Elizabeth Murphy, said.

"I'll ask her whether she has such and such and she'll say 'yes it's in the cupboard' not always remembering what's happened, that the cupboard, the whole place, has gone."

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