The night when fire hit York Minster
Updated 11:53am Tuesday 8th July 2014 in News
Tomorrow marks the 30th anniversary of the Minster fire of 1984. STEPHEN LEWIS looks back at the events of that night, and speaks to two men who were there
IT was long and hot, that summer of 1984. Farmers were desperate for rain. But there seemed little sign of it on the night of July 8 and 9.
The air was humid and oppressive. In the early hours of Monday, July 9, lightning flickered across the night sky. Eerily, there was no thunder to accompany it.
At about 2.30am, a fire alarm shattered the silence around the Minster. It triggered alarms at York's Clifford Street and Acomb fire stations, where members of Red Watch were on duty.
Firefighters were regularly called out to false alarms at York Minster. Yet when they sped into Deangate a few minutes later, they realised that this time it was for real. The air was hazy with smoke and flames were licking along the Minster's roof.
There was a detailed plan in place for what to do. Red Watch quickly established that the fire was in the space between the South Transept roof and the ceiling below.
Ladders were set up in the aisles of the galleries running down both sides of the South Transept. But burning wood and lumps of molten lead forced the firefighters to evacuate.
Urgent reinforcements were sent for, and a fire command unit set up. The fire was spreading towards the Minster tower from the gable end of the South Transept. It became clear firefighters could not save the South Transept roof.
The fear was that the fire would spread into the Nave or Central Tower.
A powerful jet of water was aimed at the burning timber at the end furthest away from the Central Tower. It collapsed, bringing the rest of the South Transept roof down with a roar. Timber smashed down on to the Minster floor, but the great building had been saved.
At 5.24am, with the first grey light of dawn spreading across the scene, firefighters signalled that the blaze was under control.
Twelve of North Yorkshire's 21 fire stations had been mobilised, and 114 firefighters and ten officers were directly involved in fighting the fire.
The damage was estimated at the time to run to more than £1 million.
But without the efforts of the firefighters that night, it could have been so much worse.
The great building was quickly to rise from the ashes. Thanks to the efforts of master masons, conservators, and stained glass restorers, the Queen visited just over four years later to inspect a Minster that had been restored to its full glory.
Tony Burnett almost lost his life the night of the Minster fire.
He and his Red Watch colleagues from Acomb fire crew were high up inside the roof of York Minster, between the Rose Window and the central tower, when the order came to get out.
It was an inferno up there, he recalls, with flames "going like billy". The Red Watch team were using breathing apparatus, "fighting the fire with steam coming back at us scalding our ears".
Then their radios crackled. "The people below could see it was going to collapse," Tony, now 66, recalls. "They radioed up and said 'get off!'"
The firefighters were worried about their gear, however. It's the firefighter's code, Tony says: you never lose your equipment. They began trying to retrieve it when another message came: 'Get off, quick!'
They moved. "Three lads managed to get onto the external ladder near the central tower," he recalls. "But as the roof collapsed I was still on the walkway. I heard an enormous roar and thought it was going to go down, so I spread-eagled myself on the parapet as the roof collapsed."
It was then that the breathing apparatus which had been keeping him alive nearly killed him. "I was almost dragged over by the weight of it," he says.
Fortunately, the walkway didn't go – and as it happened, the collapse of the roof virtually put the fire out. Tony and his Red Watch colleagues managed to make it down, exhausted and soaking wet – and had a reviving cup of tea at the Dean Court Hotel.
The night of the Minster fire is one that he'll never forget, he admits. Firefighters who weren't on duty that night used to pull his leg by saying it was just a porch fire. But he'll remember his part in saving the Rose Window until the day he dies.
"I'm so proud to have been involved in that."
John Liley, York police chief
IT was about 2.30am when John Liley was dragged from sleep by the insistent shrilling of the telephone.
“Sorry to wake you, sir," said the voice on the other end of the line. "But the Minster’s on fire.”
The York police commander's first feeling was one of utter shock and dread: York's most iconic building – one of Europe's great cathedrals – was burning.
That was followed by the knowledge that he had to see for himself. He called police control to make sure they were on top of the situation, then jumped in his car.
He could see the glow lighting up the sky as he drove into town from Fulford. The sight that greeted him as he then walked towards the Minster on foot has stayed with him for 30 years.
"I saw and experienced all sorts of things over 30 years or so in the police service – appalling accidents, major incidents. But that was the most dramatic, most breathtaking sight of all," he says, recalling it from the safety of retirement decades later.
"There were orange flames leaping from the roof, firemen climbing ladders, hosepipes on the ground."
It was dreadful, he says. But one thing that struck him was that everybody on the scene – the firefighters desperately battling to keep the flames at bay, the policemen under the command of the Night Shift Inspector Jim Kilmartin who with Minster staff were ferrying valuable artefacts out of the burning cathedral – clearly knew exactly what they were doing. It was a chaotic scene, but orderly, disciplined chaos.
John let Jim Kilmartin know he was there, then opted to let the inspector get on with the job he was doing, while he liaised with the fire service. They had to prepare for the possible evacuation of nearby properties if the fire proved impossible to contain, he says.
"Whether this would occur depended on if the fire was controlled and prevented from spreading to the main body of the Minster. This was a very tense wait but, thanks to the valiant efforts of the firefighters, the fire was controlled at 5.24am."
It was a dreadful night: but, without the efforts of the fire crews and police officers that night, it could have been very much worse, says John, now 76. "There is no doubt that, had the fire leaped across the gap, it would have been an enormous disaster."
As it was, he was astonished the the following day by the international reaction. He had telephone calls from all over the world: Australia, America, France. "I knew it was a disaster for this city and for the country – but I hadn't realised until then that it was an international event," he says.
YORK MINSTER will mark the 30th anniversary of the great fire very simply on Wednesday.
Stonemason John David, who was there during the fire, will give a reading during Evensong, which starts at 5.15pm. A firefighter will also give a reading.
There will then be a short procession to the South Transept, where the fire broke out, and a prayer and acknowledgement.
What caused the fire?
THE cause of the fire has never been definitively established. Some of the more controversial theories range from arson to the wrath of God: although it is most generally believed the fire was caused by lightning.
A few years after the fire Terry Earnshaw, who had been York fire station commander in 1984, told The Press he believed the fire had been started deliberately. He said that radioactive material from smoke alarms at The Minster could not be found among the debris, which led him to believe they had been tampered with. Also, a door to the South Transept which was usually kept locked had been found open.
Some persisted in believing the fire was an act of divine intervention due to the consecration of Dr David Jenkins – a controversial cleric with outspoken views on the Resurrection and Virgin Birth – as Bishop of Durham just three days before it broke out: a claimed dismissed as 'ridiculous' by the then Archbishop of York Dr John Habgood.
A lengthy investigation ultimately identified lightning as the most likely reason. Eighteen witnesses are said to have reported seeing a bolt strike the Minster.
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