Belfast Primark destruction branded a catastrophe for city commerce and heritage
The devastating fire which gutted one of Belfast's most historic buildings yesterday will have a "significant long-term cost to the city", it's been claimed.
The Primark store in Belfast's Castle Street was in the finishing stages of a £30m refurbishment.
A senior fire officer called it one of the biggest fires they had battled in a number of years.
Flames and thick black smoke engulfed the five-storey Bank Buildings in the city centre.
More than 100 firefighters battled for over six hours, but by 4pm, there were fears the entire structure would collapse.
A Primark spokesperson said the building was safely evacuated at around 11am after the fire started on the roof. Surrounding streets were evacuated as police moved hundreds of onlookers away. A huge smoke cloud could be seen, and smelled, for miles.
Michael Graham, assistant chief fire and rescue officer, said they would continue to deal with the fire into the evening and potentially overnight.
He said he did not know the cause, nor whether there were fire alarms or sprinklers in place. Nobody was injured.
He expressed "concerns" for the building's structure, with part of it "prone to collapse" and said a 30-metre cordon had been established for that reason.
"It has been a long and arduous six hours for them, but we will continue to fight the fire until we extinguish it. It is one of the biggest we have experienced in the last two to three years."
Retail NI chief executive Glyn Roberts praised emergency services and said there would be a significant long-term cost to the city. "Everybody's thoughts at this stage are with the workers and wondering if Primark has a future in the city, and if we can find an alternative site," he said.
"Long term there will be a significant cost, that store was probably one of the most popular in the city centre.
"It drove a considerable amount of footfall for retailers surrounding it. So that makes the situation even more serious."
He added: "This has been an immensely sad day for Belfast and our retail sector."
Les Hume, the honorary secretary of Belfast Chamber of Trade, who owns Dawson's Music store near the site of the massive inferno, urged Stormont politicians to get back to work and fight to retain jobs following the fire.
"This was going to be a pristine site right in the heart of the city, bringing much-needed economy into the city and suddenly that is gone," he said. "I would urge that we do everything we can to get everyone in a room and they can kiss and fight or whatever, but they get back in there to do it and they get in there and make those decisions."
Businesses in the city centre rallied to support the emergency services who battled the blaze at at the Primark store.
The Sunflower bar offered free drinks to those involved in putting out the fire, while Starbucks and McDonalds staff were spotted at the scene handing out drinks and food to emergency services staff.
Primark CEO Paul Marchant said he was "deeply shocked and saddened by the fire".
"The safety and wellbeing of our customers, colleagues and construction team is of course the most important consideration and we are truly relieved that all were evacuated safely. We would like to thank the emergency services for their swift response and ongoing actions.
"Our store is housed in an iconic building and much-loved by the people of Belfast."
"We would like to reassure our customers, colleagues and the wider community in Belfast that we are committed to working with the authorities and our building contractors to establish the cause of the fire."
A structural engineer told the Belfast Telegraph it would be weeks before repairs could even be considered.
"An intense fire that's spread to the lower levels is likely to undermine the integrity of the structure," he said.
"There will be issues of safety for pedestrians as well. The facade depends on the internal structure to hold it together, so if the inside is badly damaged in places there could be problems."
Last night, the PSNI warned the public to expect continued traffic delays in Belfast city centre this morning.