I have never seen so many fire engines in one place at one time – sixteen and counting.
As I walked along Bath Street to Buchanan Galleries at lunchtime on Thursday, I passed side streets closed off from Sauchiehall Street, due to the biggest blaze Glasgow city centre has seen since the May 2014 Glasgow School of Art fire.
I work in a large office building on Bath Street, barely a five minute walk from Marks and Spencer. As the shops were opening in the morning, I was able to cut across the Sauchiehall Street pedestrian precinct as usual, to reach my workplace. I heard a siren, nothing unusual in the city centre, as it can be any of the emergency services, so I thought nothing of it at that time.
Mid-morning, a woman in our office came to tell us that there was no cold water in the toilets because the water in the building was being shut off, due to a fire further down Sauchiehall Street. At the same time, the wail of several sirens in the near distance was increasing in number and noise, so we realised this is serious.
By lunchtime, I found the pedestrian precinct completely closed to the public. It was not possible to buy a sandwich in Marks and Spencer, always thronged with shoppers and office workers, nor any of the other take-out lunch food shops. Neither was I able to access the cafe downstairs in Waterstones bookshop which serves hot food, so I had to walk along Bath Street and headed for Buchanan Street. Along the way, each closed off street had crowds at the barriers, standing, staring, and taking photographs of giant clouds of dense smoke billowing skywards, while firefighters, on a specialist high reach fire appliance ladder, gushed water into the inferno.
People who would never normally speak to each other were exchanging opinions and hearsay, speculating as to where and how the fire started. One woman told me it was in Victoria’s nightclub. I had already heard that at work. Someone else said they had heard the nightclub was being renovated and that was possibly the cause of the fire, especially as it would have flammable alcohol on the premises. Another said there was a Chinese restaurant next to it and they thought that was on fire too. At that point, nobody actually knew any details, though several were consulting their phones for information and phoning friends describing the scene as they watched it happen.
I have never seen Bath Street so busy, teaming with pedestrians, all heading in different directions on a narrow pavement, insufficient for the volume of people who normally walk along the broad pedestrian precinct of Sauchiehall Street. It was difficult to avoid people and impossible not to be jostled. Pedestrians couldn’t get to where they wanted to go and were trying to find ways round the blocked off areas. A lady pulling a red wheeled suitcase behind her ran over my foot as I waited in a crowd to cross the road at traffic lights on West Nile Street. She seemed harassed and apologised profusely. It looked like she was rushing to the train or bus station and having to take a detour.
Police officers with face masks were standing near the barriers. I saw one or two people approach them and heard them ask about alternative routes to get to where they needed to go. The busy bus stop outside Watt Brothers department store, where you can get several different buses, was out of bounds. A large volume of double deckers, coaches and lorries were being re-directed along Bath Street.
It was only after I was back at the office in the afternoon, when a friend texted me, saying not to go out because she had seen a warning online about asbestos in the air. I had assumed, as did most people, that the police were wearing masks due to the smoke. Nobody said anything about any danger from asbestos, yet the streets nearby were teaming with people walking about as normal, while the dense smoke continued rising high into the air, in changing shades of light to dark grey, blotting out a large amount of the skyline.
By the time I left work for the day, the blaze was still producing masses of smoke. Three fire engines were parked across Hope Street by Watt Brothers shop with others behind it. I saw them there at lunchtime and they were still there hours later. I can only assume they were standing in readiness as a precaution, in case the fire spread further in that direction. I had to walk a different route to be sure of getting a bus home.
Due to the obvious severity of the blaze and all that I saw, it is highly likely that there will be disruption at the top end of the city centre, and roads closed, for the next few days at the very least.
Thankfully, there have been no reported injuries from this most recent fire, described as ‘an inferno’ by the firefighters who were battling it all day on Thursday.
Last week I reported on the blaze in a residential area of the West End. They say things come in threes. I really do hope that there will not be another fire to report on next week.