This devastating blaze at a whisky warehouse was one of the worst peacetime fires in British history: 19 members of the fire brigade and salvage corps were killed.
The fire service was called at 7.15pm on 28 March to reports of smoke emanating from the second-floor window of a warehouse. So massive was the fire that more than 450 firefighters and every fire engine in the city were called in.
A million gallons of whisky in 21,000 wooden casks and 30,000 gallons of rum were housed in the building. Some of the casks ruptured under the heat causing a massive boiling liquid expanding vapour explosion (BLEVE), which occurs when a vessel containing a pressurised liquid is heated above its boiling point. The explosion blew apart the front and rear walls of the building, causing huge amounts of brickwork to collapse into the street.
Bright blue flames were seen leaping 40 feet into the sky and the glow from the fire was visible across the entire city. The impact of the blast and flying masonry instantly killed three firefighters fighting the blaze in Cheapside Street and a further 11 firefighters at the rear of the building in Warrock Street, who were buried in the rubble, as were three fire engines.
The blaze, which spread to neighbouring buildings including a tobacco warehouse and ice-cream factory, took an entire week to extinguish.
The appalling loss of life at Cheapside sent shock waves through the fire service and the FBU. The union had been developing its new programme for the fire service, A Service for the Sixties, which it launched that year. The Cheapside fire confirmed many of the concerns that the FBU had been raising for years, including the need for a modern and professional fire service, improved fire safety legislation and fire inspections. The Firefighter commented:
“In the probing immediately following the disaster, there was no evidence that the building, with its explosive contents of tens of thousands of over-proof whiskey, had been inspected by the Service. Indeed, no clear answers were forthcoming as to the powers the Fire Brigade possessed at all over such premises, or whether any Regulations cover such places."
“Two years earlier in the very heart of London, two Firemen died, lost in the labyrinth of the basement of one of the main buildings of the Central Meat Market at Smithfield. Their Fire Station was no more than two minutes away at the top of the hill. The existence of this vast catacomb was unsuspected by the Brigade.”
-The Firefighter no. 171, May 1960
The firefighters and salvage corps members were laid to rest at a tomb in Glasgow Necropolis. Firefighter James Dunlop, who survived the blaze, was awarded the George Medal in recognition of his bravery. An annual memorial service is held on 28 March, attended by representatives of the fire service and Glasgow City council. A special service was held in 2010 to mark the 50th anniversary of the disaster.