On March 28, 1960, fire crews answered a call to attend a blaze at a whisky bond warehouse in Cheapside Street, Anderston.
Blue flames of burning alcohol had been seen licking from the Victorian structure fed, it would later emerge, by 20,000 casks of spirit.
Glasgow Fire Service took an emergency call to attend the fire at around 7.15pm. Within minutes of their arrival, 14 firemen and five members of the Glasgow Salvage Corps were dead – buried as walls in Cheapside and Warroch streets were blow outwards by the explosion of a lethal combination of tinder dry wood, heat and flammable spirits. It is the worst peacetime fire disaster in British history.
By coincidence, that year Jim Smith, a young man from Dalbeattie, Kirkcudbrightshire – now Dumfries & Galloway – arrived in Glasgow to start a life-long career as a firefighter. Now retired, he is an advocate of, and friend to, the service.
Now, on the 50th anniversary of the Cheapside Street disaster, Jim Smith’s experiences and those of many of his brave colleagues, have been collected in a book called Tinderbox Heroes.
Jim, who is co-author of the book with Alan Forbes, currently a press officer for the Fire and Rescue Service in Strathclyde, said that when he joined up, Cheapside Street was ‘still very much in the minds of the fire brigade and the citizens of Glasgow’.
His job, he said, was ‘a daily learning event’. No stranger to peril, he attended the fire at a Grandfare supermarket in Cowcaddens in September 1966. The fire was fought from across a lane by running a hose from a window in adjacent Stewart Street Police Station.
‘A moment later the wall of Grandfare came down and filled up the lane. Our window was completely blocked and our line of hose destroyed. We thought we had been entombed but were able to escape through the offices,’ Jim wrote.
‘All I heard was rumble, rumble, rumble,’ he said, describing the collapse. ‘We were stuck … we got out but it was hairy.’
Adding a note of levity, he said: ‘I think when you’re in the fire service you tend to be very aware of noise. I think we jump at sudden sounds more than the average person – our survival instinct.’
Tinderbox Heroes catalogues a number of fires through the 1940s, 50s, 60s and 70s and listens to the voices of the men who fought them. Cheapside Street is at its heart.
Jim is scathing of the ‘Dickensian conditions’ of many of the buildings in Glasgow at that time. Many of Glasgow’s Victorian warehouses and buildings survived bombing by Nazi Germany in the Second World War. Their poor condition, lax safety measures, wooden floors and barred windows, Jim feels, were factors in many of the fatalities that took place in our ‘Tinderbox City’.
If there was an element of fortune in Cheapside Street, Jim said, it was that more crews were not sent in the first instance.
‘They had the minimum attendance. They made “pumps five” at the very beginning. They made “pumps eight” two minutes before the walls blew out, so you’d have had all these other men in the street. As that message went out, the walls went.’
Tinderbox Heroes will be launched at the Mitchell Library on March 9 at 3.30pm as part of the Aye Write festival with an appearance by authors Alan Forbes and Jim Smith. Strathclyde Fire & Rescue will be marking the 50th anniversary of the Cheapside Street disaster throughout March. There is a memorial to the lost firefighters and salvage workers at Glasgow Necropolis and outside the former Central Hotel in Hope Street at Gordon Street.
A man has died and two other adults were treated for the effects of smoke inhalation after a fire broke out in a fifth-floor maisonette flat in the Gorbals.
More than 40 people were rescued or escorted from their homes at 83 Waddell Court after fire crews were called to the block at around 3am on Wednesday morning.
Firefighters had to force their way into the property where the 61-year-old was found.
At the height of the blaze, 20 fire appliances were at the scene and 20 firefighters wearing breathing apparatus were in action inside the building.
The fire was brought under control at around 7am and the eastbound lane of nearby Ballater Street was closed until mid-morning.
Tenants who were moved from their homes were fed and accommodated at Gorbals Leisure Centre.
Area Commander Garry Milne, one of the officers in charge during the incident, said: ‘In my 20-plus years in the fire service I have never seen such a fierce fire in a property such as this.’
On Wednesday afternoon, Strathclyde Police, Fire & Rescue and council officials were planning contingency measures for the tenants at Waddell Court.
Glasgow Housing Association said the entire building, 77 flats, had been evacuated. The landlord hopes to have returned as many tenants to their homes as possible by Wednesday evening. Others will be moved to hotels, bed and breakfast accommodation or housed temporarily in furnished flats.
GHA’s Acting Director of Housing and Customer Services, Alex McGuire, said: ‘We are doing everything possible to help the families who are affected by the fire.
‘Investigations by Strathclyde Fire & Rescue and Strathclyde Police are continuing. Some of the homes have suffered fire and smoke damage and others have been affected by water damage.
‘Until inquiries are complete and properties are habitable a number of tenants will be unable to return to their homes.
‘We will put these families up in alternative accommodation and do everything we can to ensure their comfort and well-being.
‘GHA and other agencies are co-operating fully with the investigation.’