Wales

Britannia Bridge fire: Firefighters tell their story 50 years on

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Media captionWitnesses and firefighters recall the blaze on the bridge above the Menai Strait fifty years ago

Two firefighters have recalled being trapped on the roof of a burning bridge, high above the Menai Strait, to mark the 50th anniversary of the fire.

On 23 May 1970, John Owen and Les Roberts were working for Anglesey Fire Service when they tackled a blaze on the Britannia Bridge - which links the island to the rest of Wales.

But they soon found themselves surrounded by flames and "panicking".

"It was that moment I shook hands with my maker," Mr Owen said.

They have told their story in detail for the first time as part of a BBC Wales programme to mark 50 years since one of the most dramatic fires in recent Welsh history.

Image caption The fire was started accidentally by teenagers whose party had been cancelled

The fire had broken out on the Gwynedd side of the bridge, and Anglesey firefighters were sent onto the roof of the structure to try to stop it spreading the full length.

Mr Roberts said: "We heard that the tube [which carried trains over the bridge] was on fire. I was off duty and went down just for a look, but my brother was there and had broken his leg running hoses over the rails.

"I borrowed his kit and got to work. It was like a massive firework with the wind fanning the flames, and the burning tar and the wood falling into the strait."

Image caption Les Roberts was off duty at the time but joined the effort to tackle the blaze

Mr Owen recalled how the whole bridge structure began to shake, before a flash of light came from the central pillar.

"As I looked round, I could see the fire break out near the second pillar from Anglesey, where my colleague Bob Jones was positioned.

"We were panicking. Even the best of us would panic in such a situation

"We were trapped. We had two basic choices. Jump off the bridge into the water, or crawl down a gantry and underneath the tubes so that the fire couldn't get at us."

But they spotted two lights in the distance - their colleagues making their way on to the bridge to look for them.

Image caption John Owen said he thought of his wife and children when he realised he was trapped

"It was that moment I shook hands with my maker. I thought we were goners. My wife and children came to my mind."

The Britannia Bridge was completed in 1850 and was a significant piece of engineering innovation at the time.

Image caption Residents remember where they were the night the bridge caught fire, an eyewitness says

Trains ran through specially fabricated cast iron tubes high above the water of the Menai Strait.

Though the bridge was made of metal, a wooden roof was added above the tubes to protect them from rust. The roof would become the seat of the fire, generating heat so intense it buckled the metal tubes.

"It's similar to the 9/11 disaster or the shooting of Kennedy; everybody seems to know where they were at that time," eye-witness Alun Mummery said.

"I don't think that anybody ever thought that the tube would go on fire."

The fire began when a group of teenagers went inside the bridge after a party they were due to attend nearby was cancelled by the organiser's parents.

Image caption A child who dialled 999 was not taken seriously, she says now

They lit a piece of paper so they could see if there were bats inside the structure, but it fell down into a gap below them.

Another child, Lulu Jones, was one of the first to spot the fire during a walk with a neighbour and was interviewed by journalists at the time.

"I felt very, very important when I saw myself on News at Ten," she said.

"We saw sparks starting to drop; first a few and then more and more, and then suddenly there was smoke starting to come out.

"A little bit at first, and then smoke just started gushing out and I remember thinking this isn't really right, I'm sure this is quite serious."

'One lone police minivan'

Ms Jones said she called for help, but was not taken seriously.

"I dialled 999 and was saying to the police officer 'the bridge is on fire' and he said 'what bridge', and I said 'the tubular bridge'.

"He said 'do you read Enid Blyton books?'

"I remember they sent one lone police minivan, and then all hell was let loose."

The bridge originally carried the Chester to Holyhead railway across the Menai Strait.

The road deck which now carries the A55 was added following the fire, something many say was a positive benefit to come from the blaze.

  • Britannia's Burning: Fire on the Bridge is on BBC One Wales at 22:30 BST on 24 May

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