Firefighters save world-renowned building in Glasgow from a devastating blaze
Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) crews were hailed as heroes after battling for hours to prevent an intense fire at the famous Mackintosh building in Glasgow city centre from completely destroying the iconic structure and the treasures stored within.
Designed as a home for the Glasgow School of Art by architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh and completed in 1909, the building was severely damaged when fire took hold in its basement on Friday 23rd May. Stocked full of combustible materials and featuring countless hidden voids, the fire quickly spread over every floor to engulf its west wing.
With orange flames emanating from the rooftop and a cloud of thick black smoke visible across Scotland’s largest city, aggressive firefighting operations over the coming hours successfully beat back the blaze. By 9pm, as headline writers for the morning’s papers prepared to declare the treasured building’s complete loss, SFRS was able to announce early indications suggested more than 90 per cent of the structure and 70 per cent of its contents had in fact been saved.
Chief Officer Alasdair Hay told IFF Magazine: “The response throughout that Friday afternoon and evening was an example of firefighting at its very best. Saving lives was of course the crews’ priority from the outset but they also made a truly massive effort to protect both the iconic building and the priceless works of art and unique architecture it contained.
“People saw the intensity of this blaze and were amazed our firefighters were able to stop it before the entire building was destroyed. Preventing that and saving the great majority of the irreplaceable contents was a remarkable achievement – and it was only possible because all of our personnel put absolutely everything they had into the operation.
“Their determination, courage and professionalism were all very apparent and that has been reflected in the tremendous show of support we have received since the incident. People from around the world have been in touch with the service to express their gratitude for our crews’ work at the scene.”
Played out in the heart of one of the UK’s largest cities, television cameras beamed live images of the operation that were picked-up by news outlets around the world and generated frenzies in both traditional and social media. For almost 48 straight hours the service’s head of communications and its media officer for the west of Scotland responded to a torrent of queries, issued statements and ensured the effective flow of accurate information.
Messages of thanks for the fire service arrived thick and fast with hundreds sent via Twitter and Facebook as well as from elected representatives visiting the scene. As dampening down operations continued into the Saturday afternoon, ministers from the Scottish and UK governments and the leader of Glasgow City Council arrived to deliver their personal backing to the firefighters involved.
In the weeks that followed a special dedication was made to SFRS at the Scottish Design Awards and the Glasgow School of Art presented its highest accolade – an honorary Newbury Medal – inscribed with the words: Guardians of The Mackintosh.
Perhaps the most notable expression of gratitude however was a simple card placed around the neck of Glasgow’s Citizen Firefighter statue. Left overnight by an anonymous member of the public, it had the words ‘Thank You’ printed in Mackintosh’s signature style.
Assistant Chief Officer David Goodhew, the SFRS director of response and resilience, was the incident commander throughout most of the Friday afternoon and into the evening. He said: “We could not have asked any more from our crews. They drew upon their training and experience to conduct a highly aggressive firefighting operation and their performance in the face of a very challenging fire was simply terrific.
“The scale of the task that confronted our firefighters was clear. This was a listed building of huge national and indeed international importance which had wooden panels throughout and hidden voids and levels. The nature of its use meant it was also heavily fire-loaded – so it had all the features needed for a fire to spread quickly across a great distance and to burn for a long time.
“We decided very early to conduct both internal and external firefighting operations and throughout Friday we had something like 120 firefighters in BA working to prevent the total loss of the building. A point was identified where we felt the fire could be contained and teams were placed at strategic spots to create a virtual wall of firefighters. They never wavered and their supreme effort and professionalism meant the fire never crossed that line.”
The speed with which the service responded to the incident was praised by the public and widely noted in the press. From receiving the first emergency call shortly before 12:30pm it took less than four minutes for three fire engines to reach the scene. Teams in breathing apparatus immediately entered the building to begin what would be one of Scotland’s most significant firefighting operations in recent times.
Flames had already spread beyond the basement and were rapidly progressing through every floor of the structure. Channelled through voids within the Victorian sandstone building, the fire quickly reached and broke through its roof.
Severe smoke logging affected three floors and the scene was soon sectorised, allowing the fire to be tackled from several fronts. Within thirty minutes ten firefighters were operating inside the Mackintosh using four high pressure jets, while two aerial rescue pumps were deployed to douse the flames from above.
Crews from across Greater Glasgow flooded into the city centre and were gradually joined by others from around Scotland as SFRS ensured those on scene had the resources needed to bring the blaze under control. With around 30 per cent of the building well alight a strategy was devised to create a fire break that would effectively divide the Mackintosh in two. It gave firefighters a chance of saving the building.
Seven hours of intense firefighting operations saw the frontline crews constantly on the brink of being driven back by ferocious heat and flames. Somehow the wall of firefighters remained fixed and, in the evening twilight, a brighter than expected picture began to appear.
With the fire successfully under control and crews extinguishing hotspots and continuing salvage operations, Assistant Chief Officer Dave Boyle – the SFRS director for the West of Scotland – revealed an outcome few had expected: Firefighters had saved the Mackintosh and the great majority of its contents.
He said: “Everyone was also very aware of the value of its contents, not just in terms of priceless artworks but also the importance of students’ work. While teams were battling to control the flames others were already implementing a salvage plan developed between our officers and art school staff that was designed to save everything that could possibly be saved.
“Fighting the fire from both inside and outside the Mackintosh gave the best chance of stopping the flames and the early decisions made by our crews and incident commanders proved crucial. The performance of the firefighters was incredible – it took a tremendous amount of courage and determination to prevent what was a very intense fire completely engulfing the building.
“Their efforts were extraordinary and the outpouring of support since this incident been greatly appreciated. It means a lot to our crews to know their work has been recognised and admired by so many people at home and abroad.”