Cork city inferno 55 years ago that nearly cost me my life

Retired firefighter PAT POLAND recalls a blaze more than half a century ago in which he narrowly escaped death... and another Cork city fire a decade later in which a colleague sadly died
Cork city inferno 55 years ago that nearly cost me my life

IN THE HEAT OF BATTLE: Pat Poland, author of this article, having just exited a blazing Scott’s Showrooms on MacCurtain Street, waits for water from the fire engine on February 13, 1965

‘TRIPLE Crown Now A Step Nearer: Ireland 5 pts, England 0’, ran the headline in the Cork Examiner on Monday, February 15, 1965:

When that match kicked off 55 years ago, on Saturday, February 13, 1965, I was lying on the floor of a business premises in MacCurtain Street, Cork, disoriented and gasping for air. Little white stars danced in front of my eyes; a sure sign of oxygen deficiency. If I didn’t get out fast, I had only minutes to live.

******

That day in Cork was bright and crisp but not excessively cold, unlike in Dublin where the rugby fans had to huddle up against a biting wind. That afternoon, I had left my home on Sullivan’s Quay, near the Fire Station, to walk the mile or so to my friend’s house on Western Road to watch the match.

While passing Macari’s Ice Cream Parlour I decided — chilly and all as it was — to treat myself to a cone. Leaving the shop, I happened to glance down to my left — towards the city — and was shocked to see a huge plume of dark smoke and detritus blotting out the wintery sky over Cork: for all the world resembling a mini-atomic mushroom cloud. I knew at once that a serious fire was under way. But where?

I was 18 and barely out of my basic training with the Fire Brigade, but I knew at once what I must do: forget about the match and report on duty without delay.

******

Robert Scott and Co., Hardware Merchants and Builders’ Providers, was established in 1822 by a member of the Beale family, noted Cork Quakers. Later, Robert Scott joined them and they traded under Beale, Scott and Company. Later still, the name became Robert Scott and Co; and thus it was in 1965.

Early directors of the firm included Sir John Scott (Mayor in 1896), and his in-law, the noted Cork antiquarian Robert Day (High Sheriff in 1893). The company was famous for its spades and shovels, for which they won First Prize at the Cork Exhibition in 1883. The implements were manufactured at their own ironworks at Monard and Coolowen.

Commanding a substantial footprint along St Patrick’s Quay, where it occupied numbers 6-10, the block of two and three-storey buildings extended back to 25, MacCurtain Street at its rear. The MacCurtain street shop opened in 1892.

Both premises held a vast array of household, agricultural and domestic stock, with a large paint department on St Patrick’s Quay flanked by Woollam’s Garage and a portion of the Palace Cinema (now the Everyman Palace Theatre) on its eastern side and Atkins’ Agricultural Impliments and Seed Merchants, on the other.

That February afternoon, shortly after staff had returned from their lunch break, Major Dorman, the Sales Manager, was chatting to colleague Patrick Quinn at the counter in MacCurtain Street when they noticed smoke and smelled burning coming from the ground floor (i.e., St Patrick’s Quay). “And when they ran and opened the door leading downstairs, flames and smoke burst out into their faces from the paint storeroom beyond”.

Michael Bogue and some staff members grabbed fire extinguishers and bravely attempted to tackle the fire, without success.

BUILDING ABLAZE: A view from across the River Lee of the firefighters on the St Patrick’s Quay side of Scott’s complex on February 13, 1965 — fortunately, no firefighters or civilians died that day
BUILDING ABLAZE: A view from across the River Lee of the firefighters on the St Patrick’s Quay side of Scott’s complex on February 13, 1965 — fortunately, no firefighters or civilians died that day

As Bogue spoke to an Echo reporter, his face still blackened and hair singed from the effort, he recalled that he could see “the smoke and flames coming through from downstairs and although we tried to prevent it spreading, we could not control it”.

The order was given to evacuate the premises and all staff and customers left in an orderly fashion.

At the Fire Station on Sullivan’s Quay the first of multiple ‘999’ calls was received at 2.50pm. Three appliances and crews, under Third Officer Bill Hosford, responded. On-duty member, Fireman Denis Mulcahy (later Second Officer), recalled: “We had just sat down in the TV room to watch the Five Nations (as it was then) match between Ireland and England when the fire alarm sounded — ‘the bells went down’ as we used to say.

As we ran to the sliding pole, I remember hoping we would make it back for the second half, but no such luck.

“I was a member of the crew on the Dennis ‘Pump Escape’ — an ‘open’ fire engine — and as we rounded the School of Music on Union Quay I heard one of the lads say ‘Well, we can forget the rest of the match!’

As I looked over towards MacCurtain Street, I could see the fire taking a firm hold and about to break through the roof.

“On arrival on MacCurtain Street, there was thick smoke pouring out through the main entrance and I was ordered to run a line of hose, supplied by the Dennis, in through the smoke-logged double doors.”

Meanwhile, I had run to the station to collect my own fire gear — comprising, in those days, of a helmet made of compressed cork, short black PVC coat and leggings, leather fire boots, and belt, personal axe and safety line, worn over one’s ‘walking-out’ navy-blue uniform.

Along with two other members, we headed off for the fire ground in a van. Upon arrival in MacCurtain Street the place was devoid of fire staff, bar the pump operator of the Dennis fire engine (Pat McMahon, recently-deceased, RIP).

The first-response crews — perhaps a dozen firefighters in all — had been committed to the building on fire or were deployed on nearby roof-tops and on St Patrick’s Quay (no aerial platforms then). A line of hose snaked through the main entrance of Scott’s, and I received the order: “Follow that hose and back-up the branchman!’

The notion I might have been equipped with breathing apparatus (BA) did not even come into it: there were only six sets of BA in the entire job and, in any event, some of the old-fashioned officers still regarded their use as being somehow undignified.

This was 55 years ago, before modern safety standards were in place. Sending firemen into burning buildings, particularly when Scott’s staff had already made it clear the premises had been safely evacuated, would be frowned upon now.

In any event, as the double-doors closed behind me, it was like stepping into an oven. Zero visibility. I proceeded by touching, feeling and listening.

Now, in countless films and TV series, from the puerile Backdraft (1991) to ITV’s gritty but realistic drama series London’s Burning, we’ve seen firefighters dashing through the clear-as- crystal flames to rescue a child or perhaps a comely damsel in distress.

From these depictions, many associate fire with bright, orange flames, which are easily controlled. A real fire is not like that at all. You can’t see. It’s black. You hear only noise, crashing and burning, and the strange, groaning, ominous sounds that only a doomed building on fire makes.

Breathing hot air can kill you, so remembering my training, I dropped to the floor and felt for the charged line of hose snaking away into the black anonymity of the building. The temperature at ceiling level was now probably hundreds of degrees. It was so hot I could feel my PVC ‘protective’ clothing beginning to get soft. We were taught to stay low because on the floor there is air you can breathe. But with every second the fire is growing, the smoke is getting lower and, eventually, it will fill the space.

Neither Denis Mulcahy nor I were aware that we were just a few metres from each other, as he recounted: “The main fire was in the paint store underneath on St Patrick’s Quay, and had penetrated the floor above and was spreading up the shelves behind the counter. Even as I directed the jet of water at the fire, the whole place was filling with thick, noxious smoke which made it impossible for me to breathe. The floor beneath my feet was red hot.”

Denis now dropped to the floor as well, his nose close to the nozzle to avail of the cool air sucked in by the low-pressure created by the vortex of the water jet. And then, we both heard it: the noise, seemingly, of an express train.

It was the sound at the start of the dreaded phenomenon known as a ‘flashover’ (or RFP, ‘rapid fire progress’), when all the combustible materials in a compartment reach their ignition temperatures at the same time. The smoke at ceiling level, now well over 500C, bursts into flames and rolls over, incinerating everything in its path, including metal and glass.

We had only seconds in which to react. Denis made his way to the stairs leading down to the paint department — which was blazing — and managed to make his way out onto St Patrick’s Quay, miraculously unscathed.

Picking myself up, I stumbled back whence I had come and had just reached the front doors when I was blown out the rest of the way.

As I fell, I noticed District Officer Bill Crowley also ‘hitting the deck’ as a huge wave of flame surged over our heads. Down the street a phalanx of press photographers was furiously clicking away.

The whole shop front on MacCurtain Street was now one mass of flame. I grabbed a length of delivery hose from the Dennis fire engine, coupled up, and crouched near the mudguard as I waited for the water to come though.

******

An hour later, with fellow-probationer Tadhg Fouhy, I was working a jet on the top floor on the St Patrick's Quay side when the floor beneath me suddenly collapsed. I was saved from free- falling through to the ground floor, where the fire was still raging, by fortuitously straddling a joist.

My immediate thoughts were that my chances of future fatherhood had been seriously diminished (they weren’t), or, looking on the bright side, I might get a position with Arthur Weekes in the South Chapel choir as an alto-tenor or perhaps even as a castrato!

As Tadhg dragged me up out of my predicament, he thought it was the most hilarious thing he had seen in a long time; though thankful, I, on the other hand, was less amused.

Assistance for the small Fire Brigade staff came from the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS) with their powerful ‘Green Goddess’ fire engine capable of delivering 1,000 gallons of water per minute, and the works fire-fighting unit of paint manufacturers Harrington and Goodlass Wall, both of which performed sterling work.

Although nearby buildings were saved, Scott’s itself was a write-off, with damage conservatively estimated at some £230,000 — about €5.5 million in today’s money. The newspapers at the time opined that they would open again in three months, but they never did. For years the site would be a car park.

From a firefighting point of view, it was one of the most dangerous fires in Cork of the period, much more so than others that were largely fought from the street and nearby roofs

At 4am the next day, Tadhg and I were still on duty in the now-deserted and freezing MacCurtain Street. Word came through that we were welcome to partake of ‘refreshments’ in a nearby hostelry. When they found I was a Pioneer, I was asked, in no uncertain terms, to leave...

Ach, mar a dúirt an fear, sin scéal eile.

******

Ten years later, almost to the day, on February 12, 1975, a serious fire broke out in Cork. This time, sadly, it was to have tragic consequences.

Around noon that day 45 years ago, the brigade responded to a fire call at Lee White House in Washington Street. The blaze was first seen at the rear of the second floor of the four-storey building.

On this occasion, nobody knew that the building had already been safely evacuated, so crews had to be tasked to courageously carry out a search.

Some members of the brigade, including Fireman Richard Beecher, a young man from Passage West who was engaged to be married, donned self-contained breathing apparatus and proceeded to the upper floors to ensure all occupants had been removed to safety. Without warning, a huge explosion occurred, probably the result of a large build-up of gas.

TRAGEDY: Fireman Richard Beecher.
TRAGEDY: Fireman Richard Beecher.

Retired fire officer Frank Fitzgerald, speaking about the events of that day for the first time, said: “Dick and I entered the building with a hose and were joined by Fireman Adrian Spillett (later, Third Officer).

“We crawled up the stairs, slowly, looking for the fire. We entered a small room and searched it; somehow, the door closed behind us. We thought we might be trapped so we decided to follow the hose out.

“We got out safely and proceeded to the next floor. Although working in total darkness, our search revealed no occupants or any trace of the fire.

“As we reached the top landing there was an almighty bang and we were engulfed in fire —the result of a gas explosion. It was fierce. We were burning!

“The explosion hit us full on. We could not smell the leaking gas, of course, as we were wearing breathing apparatus.

“Dick was blown into a room and the rest of us down the stairs, where we were discovered by the rescue team.

“Along with four other members who had also been injured, we were taken to hospital where we were treated for burns. When the rescue team got to poor Dick he was beyond human aid.”

Dick Beecher did not give his young life in vain. Although not receiving, posthumously, a Fire Service equivalent of the Scott Medal or the Military Medal for Gallantry (there is none), his death accelerated something far more worthwhile: the establishment of the State’s first dedicated Breathing Apparatus Training School at Castlebridge House, Co. Wexford.

Dormit in Pace.

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