James Watt Street fire 50 years on

50 years on from the James Watt Street fire which killed 22 people, Denise Christie, Scottish secretary, reflects on the events of 18 November 1968.

The James Watt Street fire, a fatal factory fire in Glasgow, was notable for the huge loss of life, with 22 employees killed and trapped in a building behind barred windows, a hangover from its previous use as a whisky bond.

Around 100 firefighters from Glasgow Fire Brigade, a brigade that had a reputation of being well trained, attended this incident, which reinforced Glasgow's reputation as the Tinderbox City.

Many of these fires resulted from poor building standards, many premises being modified from their original purpose. Glasgow did not suffer from wartime bombing to the extent of other British cities, and consequently, many industrial premises were still of nineteenth-century origin, and were located in very cramped and narrow streets.

The factory premises was located in James Watt Street, a street on the north side of the River Clyde. It had previously been used as a whisky bond and in common with much of Glasgow's industrial premises at that time, had seen numerous uses over the years. The building consisted of a ground, first, and second floors, with basement. The previous use of the building resulted in high security measures, with barred windows meaning that in the event of a fire, escape could be compromised. In the following enquiry, it was discovered that the doors to the fire escape were locked from the inside.

The alarm was raised at around 10:30, with the first crews arriving within five minutes. A serious fire was seen to be in progress, and a "Make Pumps 10" message was sent to control almost immediately (additional appliances required, which in addition to those already there would total 10).

As part of this request for reinforcements, a "Persons Reported" message was sent, indicating persons were requiring urgent assistance and rescue. 70 firefighters attended to fight the fire, with water poured onto the building from turntable ladders. It was found that efforts at rescue were futile due to the intense heat, and the difficulties in entering the building. Escape from the building had been prevented due to fire on the stairs, caused by polyurethane foam, and the escape doors from the first and second floors to the fire escape were found to have been locked from the inside. Eventually, no persons were seen at the windows, and any hopes of rescue for those inside ended when the roof of the building collapsed. Many attempts were made to enter the building where the employees were believed to be, but intense heat drove back the firefighters. Firefighters eventually gained access to the building, by cutting through the steel doors using oxy-propane cutting gear. The dead inside the factory were found to have died due to inhalation of smoke, the burning of polyurethane foam resulting in poisonous fumes, fatal when inhaled.

The fire was brought under control around 3pm by which time 20 bodies had been found. A further 2 were found later, totaling 22. Five women and 17 men. Only four people of those known to be in the building escaped.

Following a nine-day fatal-accident inquiry, various recommendations were made to improve workplace fire safety and a campaign by the Fire Brigades Union led to improved regulations concerning bars on windows, the provision of satisfactory means of escape in the event of fire, the storage and use of foam plastics in furniture, and the granting of powers of entry for qualified fire prevention officers into industrial premises to enforce better standards of safety.

The FBU will be attending a commemoration mass on Sunday 18 November 2018, hosted by the Lord Provost of Glasgow, to mark the 50th anniversary of the James Watt Street fire and to pay tribute to those who lost their lives.


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