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Primark blaze: The unforgettable fire

One year on from the blaze that gutted Bank Buildings, Ivan Little assesses how its rise from the ashes is progressing

Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

It was the raging inferno that divided Belfast physically, figuratively and emotionally as the uncontrollable flames devastated one of the city's most iconic landmarks and the busy Primark store housed inside it.

For three days, from August 28 last year, the fire swept through Bank Buildings, which became a tourist attraction for all the wrong reasons as thousands of people came to watch the sorry drama unfold in front of their disbelieving eyes from behind police and fire service lines.

But even after the blaze eventually burnt itself out, the dangers weren't extinguished at the five-storey Grade B1 listed building, which dates back to the 1780s, when it was opened as a bank before becoming the home of a bishop of Down and Connor and then a retail store.

Amid fears that the Castle Junction building could collapse, a huge no-go area was created around it, bringing chaos in its wake. Worst hit were 14 businesses inside the cordon, which were unable to trade for months, bringing heartache and hardship for their scores of employees - and the knock-on effect on trade right across the city centre was crippling.

Firefighters tackling the inferno
Firefighters tackling the inferno

One of the city's main trading hubs had effectively been ripped apart and shoppers had to take detours to get from, for example, one part of Royal Avenue to another, resulting in many of them taking their business elsewhere.

The firms that were most severely affected by the fire were eventually told they could claim up to £19,000, with the money coming from Primark.

More than 80 other shops in nearby streets were offered £5,000, with a number of offices getting £2,000.

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Gutted shell: Belfast Telegraph photographer Kevin Scott captured this aerial view of the burnt-out building
Gutted shell: Belfast Telegraph photographer Kevin Scott captured this aerial view of the burnt-out building

The disruption fuelled angry debates over what should happen to the building. Some people wanted it to be razed to the ground as quickly as possible, insisting that jobs were on the line and that there was no room for sentimentality, while others wanted it to be raised from the ashes, citing its importance to the city's rich architectural heritage.

Now, a year after the shocking blaze, the centre of Belfast has returned to something resembling normality. Gone are many of the traffic restrictions and the covered walkways designed to help the flow of pedestrians in the city centre.

The Lord Mayor, councillor John Finucane, who described the fire as a key turning-point in Belfast's development, acknowledged, however, that traders were, as in cities everywhere, still facing ongoing challenges.

"But the reduction of the cordon, the removal of the temporary walkway and the re-opening of Castle Junction to pedestrian and single-lane vehicular traffic have all aided recovery and helped reconnect shoppers with retailers and other businesses," he said.

The ravaged building itself is now dwarfed by several cranes and hidden behind a towering construction of shipping containers and walkways, surrounded by a fence featuring paintings of Belfast landmarks, including the shipyard cranes and the Bank Buildings with the famous clock being removed.

It's possible to hear the work, but not to see what's going on.

The burnt-out building
The burnt-out building

Yesterday, most people were walking past the building without a second glance.

People shopping in Primark's new extension had mixed views about the rebirth of the city centre.

"I don't think it's the same anymore," said Bridie Shaw. "The fire annoyed everyone. I rarely come into town nowadays."

Marion McCullough was pleased to see that many of the smaller shops around Bank Buildings were back in business.

"I felt sorry for them," she said. "Even outside the cordon, the place was like a ghost town."

Mairead Slane kept the faith in Belfast. "I wasn't put off, but it was a depressing place to be," she told me.

Shoppers making their way around the cordon
Shoppers making their way around the cordon

"I'm glad to see the recovery and I'm particularly glad to see the new Primark store.

Rhonda Hughes added: "I think it took a while for the city centre to get back on its feet.

"I never stayed away, but the removal of the walkways and the reduction of the cordons were very important steps to make it easier to get about and to make the city centre look brighter."

Her daughter, Niamh (16), said: "I wasn't put off coming into town.

"I really sympathised with all the small traders who had to shut or to relocate."

Primark did not put up a spokesman yesterday, but it did release a statement.

Marion McCullough
Marion McCullough

The company said it was pleased with the progress made in the building's restoration.

The statement added: "We continue to work with Belfast City Council and other stakeholders to expedite this process.

"Our proposal of application notice to the council to begin the reconstruction work is progressing and we continue to be fully engaged in the planning application process."

Ahead of the first anniversary of the fire next week, the company also thanked its own team and "everyone who has contributed to the recovery and restoration process".

"We have been committed since the fire to ensuring the welfare of our Primark colleagues, meeting our commitments to our neighbours and the wider community and trading again in Belfast city centre," it said.

Primark also stressed that it had reduced the size of the cordon around Bank Buildings and made a £500,000 donation to the council's city recovery investment programme, as well as restoring its presence with two stores in Castle Street and Donegall Place.

Rhonda Hughes and daughter Niamh outside the new Primark store
Rhonda Hughes and daughter Niamh outside the new Primark store

Most of the businesses affected by the cordon around the gutted building have now reopened.

In June the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) confirmed what most people suspected - that the blaze was accidental.

The NIFRS said it had carried out an extensive investigation into the cause of the incident.

"Given the extensive damage caused by the fire, the fire investigation process was complex, detailed and protracted," it explained.

However, the service declined to reveal the exact cause of the blaze because a wider investigation by the Health and Safety Executive Northern Ireland (HSENI) was still taking place.

Primark said it was continuing to engage with stakeholders and was helping the HSENI investigation into the cause of the fire.

The HSENI said it could not comment because the investigation was ongoing.

Twelve months ago, Primark bosses were looking forward to a new chapter in their Belfast story.

Commonwealth House in Castle Street, behind Bank Buildings, had been demolished and a new extension was due to be fused with the original Primark store in front of it.

A workman who previously worked on getting the new store ready spoke for the first time yesterday about the day of the fire.

He said few of the workers initially took any notice of a fire alarm. However, after it went off a second time, concern began to spread.

"I said to a colleague, 'You don't think that's for real, do you?'," he recalled.

"He said, 'No way, work away there'. We could see that shoppers were still coming and going in Primark.

"But, all of a sudden, we could hear someone shouting, 'Everybody get out now'.

"Somebody said that there was a problem on the roof. However, no one could have predicted the chaos that was to come.

"After we got out on to the street, I remember looking up and seeing only the tiniest amount of smoke coming out of the top of the building. I wondered why seven fire crews had raced to the scene and were getting out their ladders and hoses so quickly. That made me think something wasn't right.

"Then the fire crews started to back off and there was talk of gas cylinders on the roof. The firefighters told us to get back, so we did.

"I noticed that there was a flame below the big clock. That was just the start of it. The blaze went from floor to floor and within half an hour the fire could be seen from miles away."

The workman also recalled seeing two female buskers singing Bruce Springsteen's Dancing in the Dark - which includes the line 'can't start a fire without a spark' - nearby as the blaze spread.

"It sounded like a most unfortunate choice of song," he said.

"The girls later said they hadn't realised the blaze was so, so catastrophic."

On the streets, the rumours of how the fire started spread more quickly than the flames themselves.

One pastor even claimed the incident was divine retribution for Primark having put a display in support of the LGBT community in its window.

Whatever the cause, the impact on the city centre was enormously negative.

The introduction of a playground in Donegall Place did little to lift spirits among business leaders, who reported a significant dip in the number of shoppers on the streets, hitting traders in the pocket.

One year on, however, the chief executive of Retail NI, Glyn Roberts, said the Primark crisis had shown the resilience of city centre traders, who faced a huge tough challenge.

He described the fire as a "terrible tragedy" and said the one positive from it was that it "turbocharged" a new debate among consumers, traders and political leaders about the type of city centre they wanted for a future that had to be more inclusive, accessible and family-friendly for shoppers and tourists.

"We are making solid progress in restoring that part of the city centre, but we must go further and faster," Mr Roberts emphasised.

A top priority for Retail NI, he added, was to continue to lobby for a city rejuvenation fund to make the radical vision of a more vibrant Belfast a reality.

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