The Night Glasgow Burned: The Cheapside Tragedy BBC Scotland Investigates


The Night Glasgow Burned: The Cheapside Tragedy

As tributes are paid to those who died in the fire in Glasgow 50 years ago, Reevel Alderson looks back at the Cheapside Street fire and government failures in its aftermath.


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Transcript


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This is the site of Scotland's worst peace time fire disaster,

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the Cheapside Street Tragedy.

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On a spring evening 50 years ago today, 19 men lost their lives.

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It was the night Glasgow burned.

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It was horrendous.

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It was massive balls of fire roaring right out of the building

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and roaring right up to the third floor.

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I never saw these chappies again. That was it, killed instantly.

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There were all these fellows lying under this rubble.

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Today it's derelict, but 50 years ago,

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this was at the heart of Glasgow's commercial and industrial district.

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Tall buildings crowded in on the narrow streets

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close to the city centre and the Clyde.

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15 years after the end of the Second World War,

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Glasgow's economy was booming. But many of its Victorian

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industrial and commercial buildings had outlived their usefulness.

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The fine facades hid tinderbox premises

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where fires were a regular occurrence.

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In 1958, the City's Fire Master, Martin Chadwick, asked the question,

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"Why the increased fire losses in industry?"

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He blamed management failures to appreciate the value of

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fire prevention but also pointed out one of the biggest problems.

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"By far the greatest proportion of industrial and commercial buildings

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"were not specifically built or designed

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"to accommodate their present occupancy and are in

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"most cases old buildings adapted to satisfy their new occupancy."

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Fire-fighting equipment in the fifties wasn't as sophisticated as today.

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Some of the few machines which remain are lovingly restored in a warehouse in Renfrewshire.

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They recall a time in the 1950s and '60s, when Glasgow was nicknamed "tinderbox city."

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Glasgow suffered relatively little damage compared

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to other major UK cities in terms of bomb damage,

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and that was why the city still had a lot of these buildings

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close to the city centre. Old factories, whisky bonds.

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A much larger stock of these old buildings

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which didn't have fire alarms all crowded together.

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Not much elbow room for the fire brigade to fight such fires.

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Calls to the Glasgow Fire Brigade rose steadily

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in the post war years, and with them the number of fatalities.

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Fire was a huge problem and losses in commercial properties were mounting.

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The city was the second city in the Empire.

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Glasgow obviously built to suit the manufacturing needs

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and property didn't change.

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Nothing was replaced, it stayed there. It escaped the wartime damage.

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It was still in existence after the War,

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there was very little building taking place and the properties were being

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adapted for whatever purposes they felt they needed to use them for.

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It all came together to disastrous effect that spring evening.

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At 7.10 that evening, George Pinkstone, depot superintendent

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of the Eldorado Ice Cream Company, stepped into this street.

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He noted nothing unusual, but a few minutes later

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when he went back inside, he smelled burning wood.

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He came back out into the street and saw smoke billowing

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from the second floor windows of the Arbuckle and Smith whisky bond.

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Things developed quickly. Pinkstone made a 999 call at 7.15.

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We got the call to Cheapside Street,

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and on the road I asked our officer where we were going, and he said,

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"We're going to Cheapside Street."

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All we knew was it was a whisky bond and of course senior firemen

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in these days would wind you up,

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meaning, you know, this is a job, Raymond.

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We had already been to two bonds during the day, in the afternoon,

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which were both bell faults, so there was nothing.

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I said, maybe it will be something this time,

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but I hope not, because I wanted back to finish my dinner.

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At 7.18 the first appliances arrived,

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two pumps and a turntable ladder as well as the new fire boat

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and a tender from the Glasgow Salvage Corps.

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At 7.21 a radio call was made, "make pumps five,"

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an indication more fire tenders were required.

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You could see it was a fire then because there was quite a lot

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of smoke billowing about. No flame but plenty of smoke.

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James Dunlop, a newly qualified fireman on his first full shift,

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was part of that back up.

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The thing was to surround the fire by fire appliances.

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That's why two streets were used to approach the situation.

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At 7.47, the Assistant Fire Master, who was now in charge, sent a call

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for yet more reinforcements, "make pumps eight."

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The building this side and the building that side were

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closing in on me a wee bit and I was a wee bit, I don't know,

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it was a feeling you just don't know what's going to happen.

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So I said, "I'll turn round about". Which was a good job.

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A minute later, a massive explosion took place,

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blowing out the walls of both sides of the building.

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I was facing the building at the time and I turned round.

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EXPLOSION

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Whoomph!

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Then that's when the explosion happened.

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I don't remember anything after that.

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I turned round and the whole building had blown out.

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Oh... absolutely horrific.

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It sent sandstone blocks and bricks crashing

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into Cheapside Street on one side and Warroch Street on the other.

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Four firemen were trying to get in the window.

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They made a dash for it into the middle of the road.

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Obviously they were killed instantly, you know.

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CRASHING

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They'd no chance, the building just came down on top of them.

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They were buried under about five or six feet of rubble,

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big heavy blocks of stone. There was nothing you could do for them.

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That was it. And it was burning as well, the rubble.

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It was just mayhem after that.

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Whisky barrels all over the place.

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At 7.50, fire brigade control received a new message,

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"make pumps ten." Inside the building, the fire intensified.

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I was stationed in Govan at the time and it was a make-up from Govan

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which meant it was a larger fire than normal.

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Driving along the Clyde side we could see,

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and we knew we were in for something.

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By 8.12, Fire Master Martin Chadwick,

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who had arrived on the scene,

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called, "make pumps 15", but even that wasn't enough.

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At 8.20, just over an hour after the 999 call, he radioed,

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"make pumps 20."

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It was one of the biggest call outs for the fire service in peacetime.

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My mum and I were watching television.

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We were watching a western on ITV called Wagon Train.

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It just went direct to a newsflash. There was a disastrous fire

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in Glasgow with four firemen killed apparently, and 17 trapped.

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And in the north-west fire station,

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then the station just lit up like a lantern.

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My mum, she was screaming, "Your dad, George, your dad!"

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At one in the morning, another explosion.

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Underground whisky storage vats exploded,

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bringing down another wall of the bond. No-one was injured this time,

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and firefighters could begin to recover their dead colleagues.

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My first thought was anger. What was happening here?

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Not anger at anything, but at the situation.

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For all these fellows lying under this rubble,

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whisky barrels bouncing on top of them, bursting into flames.

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There was not much we could do about it.

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We had the added danger of the barrels of whisky exploding,

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going on fire in the street. And the street was just aflame.

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It was as if some giant was throwing them, throwing out the barrels.

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And they were landing on top of the rubble and bursting.

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Miniature bombs going off with these barrels coming out. Bang!

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Bursting into flames.

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It wasn't until 6.18 in the morning,

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exactly 11 hours after the first appliances had arrived here,

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that the fire brigade said the blaze was finally under control.

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Even so, it was March 30th, two days after the explosion,

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that the final body was recovered.

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By dawn on the 29th,

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the enormity of what had happened overnight became clear.

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Apart from the shocking loss of life, the estimated cost

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of damage was more than £3 million, £45 million today.

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It's now confirmed that 19 men died in the fire.

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I have never a blaze like the one in Glasgow last night,

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and I doubt many of you have, except in the Blitz.

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Between seven and eight o'clock in the evening

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somebody saw smoke coming from a big warehouse on the banks of the Clyde.

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Suddenly, and without any warning, the warehouse exploded

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and burst wide open and tons of masonry came crashing down

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on the men and the fire engine in the street below.

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That was how the worst peacetime fire in Glasgow

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began to kill the men who had come to fight it.

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More or less blown literally under the turntable ladder.

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'If you hadn't turned your back?'

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Oh, I think I would have got the full blast. I would have went as well

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with the laddies that were in front of me, you know.

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Literally. I still say somebody up there liked me. That was it.

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Firm believer in that. Totally, you know, that way.

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The next day, the stories of heroism began to emerge in

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the morning newspapers which showed the horror in graphic detail,

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photographs appearing on breakfast tables even as the ruins smouldered.

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Daily Mail reporter, Stuart McCartney,

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had been one of the first journalists on the scene,

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and is still amazed the death toll hadn't been higher.

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I can see the fire tender, to this day, on fire.

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I'll never forget the fireman and the tender and the fireman up there,

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and I thought how brave, how brave a man he was.

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And I was very surprised that he lived,

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because I couldn't see, I couldn't see him getting down

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because of the flames were, had engulfed the engine.

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The man who wound him down,

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look at the flames round him, a very brave man.

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James Dunlop's George Medal was one of two awarded that night.

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It's the highest civilian honour for bravery.

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But at the time, he had no thoughts of heroism, just duty.

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It was a 100 foot ladder, fully extended.

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Willie Waters was on the platform on the turntable ladder.

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He was thrown off the platform, and blown about,

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and was hanging by his belt.

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So we were covered pretty much by fire then on the ground.

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He had got his feet back on the platform again,

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and was holding on with his hands and his belt.

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We were told to clear out because it was a dangerous situation.

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I couldn't leave Waters up there.

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I had put him up, I was going to have to bring him down again.

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But at the rear of the appliance where I was,

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there was an emergency button controlling the engine,

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so I pressed that, and the engine fired and started up again

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and managed to get power on.

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I saw Jimmy Dunlop bringing Willie Waters down,

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which he won the George Medal for.

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Willie Waters was also commended for his bravery.

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Among the other stories of heroism was a police officer who pulled

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a trapped fireman from the rubble of the collapsed building.

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The death toll was made up of three firemen who died

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when their turntable ladder was buried in Cheapside Street

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in the explosion there. Its crew hadn't even been able

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to raise the ladder to begin fighting the blaze.

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But in the narrower Warroch Street,

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where Jimmy Dunlop's turntable ladder stood burned out in

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the middle of the road, the majority of fatalities had occurred.

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Five Salvage Corps and 11 firemen.

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I went down to Cheapside Street. It was horrendous.

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Massive balls of fire roaring a good five or six feet out of the building.

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Roaring right up to the third floor or the fourth floor.

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And whisky barrels falling out at that time, too.

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It was just massive inferno.

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A colossal number of jets of water everywhere.

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I've never seen a fire in my life like it.

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Amid the stories of heroism,

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the night was also heavily tinged with sadness.

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All the men got out of the car.

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Eddie took off his collar and tie, white collar and tie,

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and laid them on the dashboard of the vehicle. He said,

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"You keep these clean now, don't get them dirty

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"and I'll get them when I come back."

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I feared for the worst, that they may have been caught, so I went back,

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and Eddie's tie was hanging on, it was swinging back and forward,

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and I was on my own. And I couldn't understand this.

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One minute there was a full crew, the next minute I'm on my own.

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I didn't know that Joe, of course, had been found at that time.

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I assumed that they were all gone.

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The next thing I remember I was lying among bricks and rubble,

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and there was an iron post over my legs and a terrible pain in my back.

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They got me onto a stretcher and took me down onto the Clydeside

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and from the Clydeside the ambulance took me to the Western Infirmary.

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I kept asking, "Are you sure there isn't anybody else here?"

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I felt sure there was going to be more there, you know.

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I went down Cheapside Street and met a fireman who stayed

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in the northwest fire station, Gordon Keith. I said,

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"Mr Keith, have you seen my dad?"

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"No, I don't see him, son, he might be down at the bottom.

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"You'll need to go right down to the Clydeside."

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But I wasn't allowed down then.

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My next door neighbour, Jimmy Mungall, he was killed.

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The chap who lived up the stair above me, Willie Oliver, was killed.

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And when I came back that night,

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of course, the women were all in the back court.

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And, of course I could hear all the women shouting, "Where's my man?

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"What's happened, what's going on?"

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And I sneaked out, I sneaked out the side door.

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I went up, up to my own house rather than meet any of the wives

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because I couldn't tell them anything at all.

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The deputy firemaster came to my mum's house, Mr Swanson,

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and he just dissolved into tears. He just totally broke down.

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He was a wonderful neighbour and he stayed next door to us for years.

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He was a lovely gentleman and a wonderful fireman, too.

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And poor Mr Swanson, he just dissolved into tears when he

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came to my mum and said he was sorry for losing my dad.

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He said, "I've lost the cream of my men tonight."

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And he just broke his heart in my living room.

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In the aftermath of the Cheapside Street blaze,

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a collection began for the families of the dead fire and salvage men.

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There were 18 wives and 31 children left.

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The collection raised a total of almost £200,000,

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the equivalent today of £3 million.

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BAGPIPES PLAY A LAMENT

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Glasgow provided what amounted to a state funeral

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for the 19 victims of the fire.

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It was attended by firemen from all over the UK.

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The bodies of all the dead men had been taken to the Ramshorn Kirk,

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the traditional firemen's church.

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On the day of the funeral it was just very poignant

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and so stressful day of sadness.

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One of my colleagues, Tommy Renton, the piper,

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played The Flowers of the Forest. I remember that.

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I know was there were thousands there, certainly hundreds,

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-lining Ingram Street.

-Firemen from all over Britain were there.

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What was going through my mind,

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was I really going to the cemetery for my young brother?

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I just couldnae take it in.

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So sad, totally sad.

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You know, just tragic.

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I couldnae cry then because I had to look after my mother then.

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You just needed to mention his name, you know, she'd just go into tears.

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A requiem Mass for the four Roman Catholics

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took place at St Andrew's Cathedral,

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but as all the men had died together,

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it was decided they should all be buried in a common vault

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in the Necropolis.

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MUSIC: "How Great Thou Art" by Carl Gustav Boberg

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The coffins went up the High Street

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and we made our way to the Necropolis. It was very stressful

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for young people, my brother and myself, my older brother.

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I was one of the pall bearers at the funeral and you felt

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as if you were being watched all the time, everything you did.

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Certainly, the people were amazing that they all turned out for this.

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There was a lot of pride, obviously, definitely a lot of sadness.

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Sadness for the wives, the families, the kids.

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This was the people that were left.

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We lost the guys and that was it. We couldn't do anymore for them.

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The families were very close-knit families.

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People lived in the stations

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and got to know one another so well.

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Pretty sad. Not nice.

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It must have been hell on earth for men like that to survive it.

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It must have been a terrible shock to their systems that their comrades

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had gone to a fire and go back to the station with an empty appliance.

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It must have been dreadful for these men.

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I know it was a dreadful situation in the northwest,

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a terrible gloom went over the place.

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The coffins were passing.

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It was just unbelievable really, you know...

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that I had lost him.

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But when the rawness of the grief had subsided, the hunt began

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for answers to the many questions posed by this disaster.

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Here in the Glasgow Archives in the Mitchell Library, ironically built where the St Andrew's Halls had been

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destroyed by fire in 1962, official documents give a clue as to why the scale of loss of life was so severe.

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And what might have been done to prevent such a tragedy.

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We don't know what the cause of the fire was but we do know the building's windows had been

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bricked up, its sprinkler system ripped out, and there was no automatic fire detection equipment.

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Yet no legislative action followed the Cheapside Street tragedy.

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The scale of the disaster shocked the nation and questions were asked about how this could have happened,

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even as demolition workers moved in to clear the site.

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Politicians were keen to be seen to be acting. But they didn't,

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and there would be several more disastrous fires in Glasgow before the laws finally changed.

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There's a lot more than Cheapside Street, there's been a few deaths since then.

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Picture one fireman at the top of a tenement building,

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his head out of the window, shouting down to the rest of us,

0:21:260:21:30

"I've got a woman up here, but everything's OK." Fine.

0:21:300:21:35

And we shouted back that the fire's under control, we'll see you shortly.

0:21:350:21:39

And we did see him, he was dead.

0:21:390:21:42

He had given his breathing apparatus to the woman.

0:21:420:21:45

In England, law changes followed fire disasters much more quickly.

0:21:480:21:52

Most of the guests were regulars, coming here

0:21:520:21:55

every year to celebrate Christmas in this 16th century coaching inn.

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Just before 2am, the hotel was a blazing inferno.

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11 people died in this hotel fire in Essex in 1969.

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After that, a new act required hotels to have a fire certificate.

0:22:090:22:14

There were ten fatalities in Woolworths in Manchester two years later.

0:22:140:22:19

Polyurethane foam in furniture was banned after that.

0:22:190:22:23

And after 56 people died in the Bradford City football ground fire,

0:22:230:22:28

new legislation on sports ground safety was enacted.

0:22:280:22:31

Following another horrendous fire in Glasgow, this time in 1968,

0:22:310:22:36

MPs were still complaining fire brigades in Scotland

0:22:360:22:39

couldn't inspect premises uninvited.

0:22:390:22:42

22 people died when a furniture factory in James Watt Street caught fire.

0:22:420:22:47

Many of the victims had been trapped behind barred windows.

0:22:470:22:51

But most recently, following deaths of 14 elderly residents

0:22:510:22:53

of the Rosepark Nursing Home in Lanarkshire,

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Holyrood passed the Fire Scotland Act to change the way brigades can inspect premises.

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But virtually nothing changed as a result of the 19 deaths in Cheapside Street.

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The Arbuckle and Smith bond contained more than

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a million gallons of whisky and 31,000 gallons of rum.

0:23:130:23:17

The DCL bond was across the road, and in Warroch Street

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an engineering works where thousands of gas canisters were stored.

0:23:210:23:24

The windows of the stricken bond were bricked up,

0:23:240:23:27

so once the fire started it was a pressure cooker waiting to blow.

0:23:270:23:31

Back at the Mitchell Library, documentation prepared for a negligence claim reveals

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the fire brigade was ill-prepared for such a cataclysmic event.

0:23:360:23:40

Fireman after fireman, questioned by investigators, said they'd received

0:23:400:23:45

no specific training for whisky bond fires.

0:23:450:23:48

"No references to bond fires in any circulars, pamphlets or manuals."

0:23:480:23:53

"I've looked at all manuals and circulars back to 1940 -

0:23:530:23:58

"no reference to fires in bonds."

0:23:580:24:01

A third says no specific training is given in firefighting in bonds.

0:24:010:24:06

It was obviously a tricky question because each man's evidence contains an addition, stating that such fires

0:24:060:24:12

were a matter for training, and that no such training was given.

0:24:120:24:17

Progress through the door to the left hand side and deal with the fire conditions. Are you happy with that?

0:24:170:24:23

-Anything you want to ask before you head off?

-No.

-OK.

0:24:230:24:26

The room opens to the left. Go through the door and move to the left hand side.

0:24:300:24:35

Have another go, see what else I can see.

0:24:350:24:37

Today's firefighters have infinitely better equipment than 50 years ago.

0:24:410:24:45

Their understanding of the mechanism of fires has improved, too.

0:24:450:24:49

But, crucially, the training for all eventualities has become more rigorous.

0:24:490:24:54

Even for highly unusual events such as Cheapside Street.

0:24:560:25:00

This memorial to the Cheapside dead in the Necropolis

0:25:070:25:10

where they are buried was unveiled a year after the fire. Perhaps the disaster had been a one-off.

0:25:100:25:15

There has been no similar blaze in a whisky bond since the Cheapside disaster.

0:25:150:25:21

But that was of little comfort to the bereaved families of those who died that night.

0:25:210:25:26

This memorial provides a permanent reminder of their sacrifice, but today there are those who

0:25:260:25:33

are wondering if, as a result of a lack of official action, that sacrifice may have been in vain.

0:25:330:25:39

Did we learn lessons from Cheapside Street?

0:25:390:25:43

Thinking back.

0:25:450:25:47

Not a great deal.

0:25:470:25:48

I don't think. Unfortunately.

0:25:500:25:53

Today, the fire service remembers its heroes,

0:25:530:25:56

with a new book just published.

0:25:560:25:59

And one of the points that I make is that organisations that lose their sense of history,

0:25:590:26:05

their sense of identity, often lose their way in the world.

0:26:050:26:10

We have never lost that sense of history.

0:26:100:26:13

It may have taken 50 years, but a plaque is finally being completed

0:26:130:26:17

to mark the disaster in Cheapside Street.

0:26:170:26:20

And younger generations are now also remembering what happened, with a mosaic for the area.

0:26:230:26:31

The young people have been fantastic, they have really got involved.

0:26:310:26:35

They really understand the reasons behind it and why we are doing it.

0:26:350:26:40

And they are all working really hard to get it finished.

0:26:400:26:43

For those who were actually there, and saw terrible sights

0:26:520:26:55

and lost friends and comrades, the most important things are to learn and never forget.

0:26:550:27:01

We still go up there every year to pay our respects at 11 o'clock on the 28th.

0:27:070:27:12

Hell or high water, we are always there.

0:27:120:27:15

It was very much a sort of John F Kennedy kind of occasion

0:27:160:27:20

that people would remember for the rest of their lives where they were.

0:27:200:27:25

Especially in Glasgow, they would remember. They could have lived miles away, even outside the city.

0:27:250:27:31

People as far away as Stirling could see the glow of the fire.

0:27:310:27:35

Let's face it - we were young,

0:27:380:27:41

and it was an exciting job we were in.

0:27:410:27:43

It's all sad. Totally sad.

0:27:450:27:47

It was tragic.

0:27:470:27:49

It was a wake-up call totally for me.

0:27:490:27:51

The Salvage Corps was never the same. Never the same.

0:27:590:28:03

I really felt sorry for the families and especially the children.

0:28:030:28:07

A lot of them were about four, five.

0:28:070:28:10

I suppose

0:28:110:28:13

for those of us who managed to escape the blast,

0:28:130:28:18

it was...thankfulness really.

0:28:180:28:23

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:28:430:28:46

E-mail [email protected]

0:28:460:28:49

The deaths of nineteen men in a tragic whisky bond fire in Glasgow in 1960 represented the worst peacetime loss of life for the fire service. The fire in Cheapside Street was one of a series of disasters in commercial premises in Glasgow which earned the city the nickname 'Tinderbox City'. Yet despite the loss of life and the bravery of those who survived, little was done to ensure such a tragedy could never happen again.

As commemorations are held to pay tribute to the dead, BBC Scotland correspondent Reevel Alderson looks back at the Cheapside Street fire and government failures in its aftermath.


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