Shocked staff look on as flames and smoke engulf Belfast Primark building
There was shock at the scene of devastation in Belfast's busiest shopping district yesterday as flames gutted the historic Bank Buildings at Castle Street.
Staff and shoppers in the Primark superstore, which occupies the premises, spoke of confusion inside the building around 11am when the smell of burning began to filter down from the top floor.
The clothing and homeware store was quickly evacuated, with no reports of injuries.
Within minutes it was apparent this was no ordinary fire drill, with orange flames clearly seen rising from the right-hand-side of the 230-year-old listed building and a huge plume of smoke cloaking parts of Royal Avenue.
Caitlin Hunter (17) had been shopping in Primark's ground floor when the evacuation began.
"The mood in the shop was confused. We could smell smoke but it was a shock, a scary moment," she said. "It was a rush as well as there were very few ways out as there was still building work being done.
"There was a lot of people on the ground floor so we did all feel like sardines."
She added: "You're in doing your usual nosy around and all of a sudden you come out and see this.
"It makes you wary of what can happen so quickly."
A huge emergency response was already underway by 11.30am, with 14 fire appliances and 80 firefighters initially tackling the growing blaze.
Hundreds of shoppers stood, watching in disbelief and shock, while some filmed the unfolding drama on their phones.
Over the next hour, the building's rooftop collapsed inwards, with smoke and the skyline behind becoming visible through the broken face of the landmark structure's rooftop clock.
Loud bangs were heard frequently from inside the building, thought to have been caused by exploding gas canisters.
Concerned for public safety, police began urgently moving crowds further away from the danger, extending the cordon already set up around the building.
By 1pm it appeared the severity of the fire had lessened but the true extent of the damage was yet to emerge.
More explosions were heard as the blaze spread rapidly to the lower floors and consumed the entire building.
Primark workers who were evacuated earlier stood among the crowds, watching, a number of them understandably upset and too shocked to speak.
One man who was in the building at the time said: "The fire alarm went off and everyone got out safe and sound.
"I got out to the safety point and was as shocked as everyone else to see the smoke."
Aimee McKee (19) had been on her way to start her shift in Primark when she was confronted with the scene of devastation.
"I just think it's heartbreaking, especially with all the new work that has gone into the building, it was nearly finished and that's put us back to square one again.
"I think everyone is concerned for their job, but the main thing is that everyone's out safe and no one's injured today," she said.
"I heard about it before I even got there but it's just shocking to see it in person."
By 4pm, emergency services remained on high alert with one senior police officer fearing that the entire structure would collapse.
Last night, the Belfast Buildings Trust (BBT) called for action to be taken to ensure the building can be saved.
Shane Quinn, development manager at BBT, paid tribute to the efforts of the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service to save the building and to ensure the safety of staff and shoppers.
He said: "In reality, the full extent of the damage will take time to assess. Rebuilding will require creativity and hard effort, and we hope that the city and the building's owners will make every effort possible to make sure that the Bank Buildings once again brings life to the city's heart."