This fire at the high street shop Woolworths situated opposite Piccadilly Gardens in Manchester killed 10 people and injured six firefighters.
Around 500 customers are believed to have been in the store at the time of the blaze. When crews arrived they found thick smoke billowing from the six-storey building and people screaming for help from the windows. Firefighters fought the blaze for two and a half hours while helping people escape by the shop’s doors, windows and roof.
An investigation following the fire discovered that the entire building was a death-trap. The fire was caused by a damaged electrical cable igniting furniture made of polyurethane foam, which produced large amounts of thick toxic smoke. This not only caused breathing problems but obscured the exits.
To make matters worse the store had no sprinkler system, so the fire had plenty of time to spread before firefighters arrived. There were thick bars on the upper-floor windows that fire crews attempted to pry off with axes and crowbars, but so strong were the bars that they had to wait for specialist cutting machinery. Meanwhile, a vital means of rescue was frustrated.
FBU delegates gathering at their conference that year had many unanswered questions. Greater Manchester’s John Hodder, who was outside the store off duty at the time, said fire engines were on the scene in one minute 50 seconds yet still people died. Essex delegate John Ross asked:
“Why did Woolworths require barred windows on the second floor?”
London’s Trevor Jones said that the increasing risk from the use of plastic materials meant it was time to review Home Office fire and safety regulations.
This was the start of a long campaign, with the FBU central, to challenge the use of flammable foam in furniture. This eventually led to the Furniture and Furnishings Fire Safety Regulations, which forced furniture manufacturers to use safer materials.