Mike Fordham revisits one of the worst disasters in British history, exploring the lessonslearned which led to thousands of lives saved by subsequent changes to regulations
May 8, 1979, ten people died whilst shopping in the Woolworth's store in Manchester City Centre. Ten people trapped by an intense fire fuelled by polyurethane foam; ten people trapped by barred windows; ten people not protected by a sprinkler system; ten people let down by an inadequate response over many years to similar tragedies. Lessons were not being learnt. Twenty years earlier in May 1959 FIRE under the headline of 'A fireman's nightmare' pointed to the risks presented by department stores. A year later came the Henderson's department store fire in Liverpool killing 11 people. Legislation was then enacted in the form of the 1963 Offices Shops and Railway Premises Act The Woolworth's fire, and more importantly the response to it by some politicians, chief fire officers and trade unions, helped shape a generational campaign against the status quo. 'Woolworths' in many ways became iconic, via the front page pictures of firefighters rescuing a woman through the barred windows and the FIRE headline of 'The arm through the bars… the shoe on the stairs'. The Fire Brigades Union and the Chief Fire Officers Association both relied heavily on the lessons to be learnt from 'Woolworths' in responding to Margaret Thatcher's government's - elected some five days before the fire - plans to decimate the service as outlined in their policy document Future Fire Policy published in 1980, just one year after the fire.
Loss of Life 'Woolworths' became a fire that led to thousands of lives being saved. The investigations revealed how the inferno had been made worse by the fumes from polyurethane foam fillings in the furniture department. This helped start the campaign for a change in the law to improve the safety of soft furnishings - a campaign which was only truly successful after the continuing loss of children's lives in house fires.
The government had done their best to ignore the lessons of Woolworths but the public and campaigners prevented them from doing so, as did the deaths of those children. The Woolworth's store was not fitted with sprinklers, and at the time of the fire they were only seen as a means of suppressing fire damage rather than being a potential life-saver. Most of the major stores in Manchester were not fitted with sprinklers and many of those that were appeared more concerned about a 400 per cent increase in their water rates as a result of fitting them. Just £2,132 per year to potentially save ten lives!
The legislation on sprinklers in stores and elsewhere was changed. Woolworth's did not have a Certificate under the Fire Precautions Act, but was carrying out work to meet the requirements. USDAW, the shop workers union, working closely with the FBU, highlighted the inadequacy of the training of the staff. Many of their members were trapped by the fire and needed to be rescued. The staff were also not properly trained in how to assist the public in such an emergency, or how to make their own exit. There was no risk assessment, there was no emergency plan. The training requirements of the legislation were enhanced following the fire. Ten lives lost, 30 people rescued (including four firefighters), 47 people taken to hospital, six firefighters injured. Legislation was in place but it was not on its own enough. There was a response from the brigade within two minutes of the call. A response which in total was 114 firefighters, 32 appliances, 21 pumps, three hydraulic platforms, one turntable ladder, two emergency tenders, a salvage tender, high expansion foam unit and a control unit.
Still ten people died, but there were potentially 500 victims in the store at the time of the fire. That response and the courage of the firefighters prevented it from being much worse. In the June 1979 journal of FIRE Harry Klopper, then Editor-in-Chief wrote that 'the real tragedy of fire is that so much of it is preventable'. He was right and 'Woolworths' was the iconic example of it.