Woolworths Fire

The Woolworths Fire – Manchester 1979

Just after lunch on Tuesday 8th May 1979 a taxi driver was parked in a taxi rank opposite the Woolworths Store located opposite Piccadilly Gardens in the centre of Manchester. He noticed a fire in the Woolworths store and called his controller to tell her of the fire. She dialled 999 and was put through to the Greater Manchester Fire Brigade Control at 13.28. Woolworths was a large department store and at the time was said at the time to be the largest Woolworths store in Europe. The store comprised of six floors along with two basement levels. The store had no sprinkler system fitted.

It is believed that around 500 customers and staff were inside the building when the fire broke out. 12 calls were received by brigade control to this fire, none of which came from the store. A pre-determined attendance to the store was dispatched. This consisted of three pumps and a hydraulic platform. A mobile Station Officer was also ordered to attend. The initial attendance, which arrived within two minutes of the first call, was greeted by the sight of flames and smoke issuing from the second floor windows. People were trapped on the second, third and fourth floors, women were seen at barred windows on the second floor, frantically calling for help. Others who had made their way to the roof were also shouting for assistance.

The Station Officer immediately sent a message to “Make Pumps 10”. Rescues were started from a 13.5m extension ladder and from the cage of the hydraulic platform. Other members of the public were found at ground level and were brought out to safety. At 13.35, an ADO arrived and requested a turntable ladder to rescue a man seen on the top floor. By now other appliances were arriving and further 13.5m ladders were pitched to the barred windows.

Attempts to pry open the bars were made using pick axes and crow bars, whilst cutting gear was made ready. These attempts were unsuccessful. An air-operated saw was then used. Firemen managed to cut two of the bars then bend them outward to enable the rescue six persons. Two of the women need urgent administration of oxygen when they were removed.

At 13.42, two jets had been laid up an internal staircase from Oldham Street to the second floor by BA crews. These crews found terrible conditions with intense heat and smoke preventing further penetration into the building, even though they had been on their hands and knees in an attempt to get underneath the heat layer. At 13.42 a Divisional Officer took over command and sent “Make Pumps 15”.

In the meantime, a second hydraulic platform had rescued a woman from a toilet window at second floor level, and had now started to remove a further twelve persons from the roof. A fireman had been taken to the roof level in the hydraulic platform cage and had remained on the roof whilst the rescues were carried out, calming those awaiting rescue. By 13.45 all those that had been seen calling for help at the windows and on the roof had been rescued.

A second jet this time to the first floor was laid up the Oldham Street staircase and was used by BA crews to tackle a fire that involved the escalator. This team was then tasked with making their way to the second floor which was fully on fire. Another BA crew also started to tackle the second floor fire, this time entry was by stairs from Piccadilly. At 1354 the message “Make Pumps 20” was sent.

BA Crews using jets from the head of two 13.5 ladders and protected by covering jets from pavement level attacked the fire on the second floor from the frontage of the store. Two other jets were now laid into the back of the second floor from Piccadilly, even though the padlocked and chained doors had made access difficult. A further rescue was carried out from the top floor by turntable ladder. The Assistant Chief Officer took over the incident at 14.15. Eight jets were now being worked into the second floor, and conditions finally started to improve.

Three bodies were now found only 6 ft. from the exit doorway three others were found a short distance further away. Four others were also found on this floor in various other locations. Hydraulic platforms being used to fight the fire were constantly having to stop work due to them hindering work carried out inside by BA crews. At 15.00 one BA team had to be rescued by turntable ladder after they had been cut off after having traversed the third floor and made their way to the roof. Another crew had been cut off by collapsing stock within the store and were rescued from a window by an HP. The fire had now died down, but severe smoke logging continued. It was decided to use a high-expansion foam generator for smoke extraction purposes. The Message “Fire Surrounded” was sent at 15.51, the fire now being almost out and conditions having improved to allow a thorough search of the building.

During this fire

  • 10 people died
  • 26 people were rescued by the fire brigade
  • 6 others were assisted from the building by the fire brigade
  • 47 people were taken to hospital
  • 6 firemen were injured, but none serious
  • 90% of the second floor was seriously damaged by the fire
  • The third, fourth and fifth floors were severely damaged by smoke
  • The first floor was slightly damaged by fire
  • The stock on the first floor, ground floor and basement was damaged by water.

It is believed that the fire was started by a damaged electrical cable that had furniture stacked in front of it.

The furniture was constructed of polyurethane foam which, once alight, would have spread rapidly, producing large amounts of thick dense smoke which would have soon obscured the exit signs. This would have led to confusion and, together with the irritants in the smoke affecting people’s vision and causing breathing difficulties, would have hindered any escape.