Belfast Telegraph

Claire McNeilly: Why do we still not know how Belfast Primark fire started?

Aidan Jennings outside the charred remains
Aidan Jennings outside the charred remains
Claire McNeilly

By Claire McNeilly

We've seen it with our own eyes and now we know how much it is costing.

Many of us have had our day-to-day routines - and our livelihoods - affected by it. Thankfully, no one died.

But, almost a year on from what one veteran fire officer described as the worst blaze he had seen in his career of over two decades, we still don't know what caused 'The Unforgettable Fire' of August 28, 2018.

Commander for the Eastern Area, Aidan Jennings, who was in charge of the operation that day, saw the blaze 12 miles away as he raced to the scene from nearby Lisburn.

"I could see the smoke plume from the motorway around the Applegreen service stations and it was clear from what I was seeing - and from what I was hearing - that this was going to be a significant incident," he said.

The sheer scale of the inferno meant that firefighters who arrived at the scene shortly after 11am that day were still there, battling through the raging flames, until after 6pm that Friday.

Faced with "large numbers of people" upon arrival, with many "videoing the fire on mobile phones", Mr Jennings said it was a tough challenge for his men on the ground, with the very real fear that the building could collapse never far from their minds.

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Aerial views showing the aftermath of the fire in the Bank Buildings - Primark Belfast - August 29th 2018 (Photo by Kevin Scott)
Aerial views showing the aftermath of the fire in the Bank Buildings - Primark Belfast - August 29th 2018 (Photo by Kevin Scott)
Aerial views showing the aftermath of the fire in the Bank Buildings - Primark Belfast - August 29th 2018 (Photo by Kevin Scott)
Aerial views showing the aftermath of the fire in the Bank Buildings - Primark Belfast - August 29th 2018 (Photo by Kevin Scott)
Aerial views showing the aftermath of the fire in the Bank Buildings - Primark Belfast - August 29th 2018 (Photo by Kevin Scott)
Aerial views showing the aftermath of the fire in the Bank Buildings - Primark Belfast - August 29th 2018 (Photo by Kevin Scott)
Aerial views showing the aftermath of the fire in the Bank Buildings - Primark Belfast - August 29th 2018 (Photo by Kevin Scott)
Aerial views showing the aftermath of the fire in the Bank Buildings - Primark Belfast - August 29th 2018 (Photo by Kevin Scott)
Aerial views showing the aftermath of the fire in the Bank Buildings - Primark Belfast - August 29th 2018 (Photo by Kevin Scott)
Aerial views showing the aftermath of the fire in the Bank Buildings - Primark Belfast - August 29th 2018 (Photo by Kevin Scott)
Aerial views showing the aftermath of the fire in the Bank Buildings - Primark Belfast - August 29th 2018 (Photo by Kevin Scott)
Aerial view over Bank Buildings following Tuesdays fire. Photo by Gregory Weeks.
Photo by Gregory Weeks. Aerial view over Bank Buildings following Tuesdays fire..
Photo by Gregory Weeks. Aerial view over Bank Buildings following Tuesdays fire..
Aerial view over Bank Buildings following Tuesdays fire. Photo by Gregory Weeks.
Photo by Gregory Weeks. Aerial view over Bank Buildings following Tuesdays fire..
Photo by Gregory Weeks. Aerial view over Bank Buildings following Tuesdays fire..
Photo by Gregory Weeks. Aerial view over Bank Buildings following Tuesdays fire..
Photo by Gregory Weeks. Aerial view over Bank Buildings following Tuesdays fire..

"Across the four days we had over 400 firefighters and 63 appliances at the scene working in extremely difficult conditions," he said.

"At the height of operations on Tuesday afternoon we were applying somewhere in the region of 25,000 litres of water a minute to tackle the fire. I have 24 years' service and it's the biggest fire I've attended. It's certainly the biggest fire that NIFRS has seen in at least a decade."

Apart from two firefighters who sustained injuries, the area commander said he is "thankful that we came out the other side" with no fatalities.

Mr Jennings is aware of rumours circulating about how the fire started and, without divulging anything, revealed he is "continually asked about that".

"I understand people wanting to know," he said. "The remit of the Fire & Rescue Service is to identify accidental or deliberate. Our fire investigation process was very complex and detailed and protracted.

"It took a period of time but we finished that up earlier in the year and we released a statement about the outcome being accidental.

"Our fire investigation report has now been passed to the Health and Safety Executive (HSENI) and that forms a part now of their investigation and it would be wrong of me to comment any further on the actual cause whilst their investigation is ongoing. It is still a live investigation."

Mr Jennings said that while he recognises some people believe the cause of the fire is a closely guarded secret, he stressed that is "not the case".

He added: "There is due process to be followed and it has to be followed."

The Health and Safety Executive has been unable to shed any light on what is fast becoming Northern Ireland's number-one cause celebre.

A spokesman said: "As the HSENI investigation into the Primark fire is still ongoing, we are unable to make any comment."

So, when will we get a much sought-after answer from the HSENI?

So many chapters have been written in this mystery tale. But it still needs a beginning - and an end.

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