Ex-fireman recalls the blaze at York Minster in 1984
Former fire Divisional Commander Alan Stow, who was involved in the fight to save York Minster during the 1984 fire
THIRTY years ago next month, the roof of York Minster's South Transept was destroyed by a massive blaze. Alan Stow, who played a leading role in the battle to save the cathedral, today looks back at the fire and its probable cause - and tells how firefighters feared it would spread to the entire building.
When Alan Stow was woken at his Dringhouses home at 3.02am on July 9, 1984, and told by fire brigade control he was needed to attend a fire in the South Transept roof at York Minster, he thought it was probably just a training exercise.
"My initial thoughts were of disbelief," says Alan, now 74, who was then the York divisional commander with North Yorkshire Fire & Rescue Service.
"I was familiar with the building. I had been inside the roof void and couldn't imagine how a serious fire could develop. There was a sensitive fire detection and alarm system designed to call the fire brigade at the slightest wisp of smoke."
It was only when he turned into Tadcaster Road to drive into town that he realised it was anything but an exercise. "I could see the glow in the night sky from two or three miles away."
He arrived to find flames pouring out of the roof and, taking over command from Station Commander Terry Earnshaw, called control to 'make pumps 15': there were already ten fire engines at the scene or on their way but he knew another five were needed. Later that was extended to a total of 20 fire engines and three turntable ladders, which came to York from all over North Yorkshire, with 114 firefighters and 12 officers involved in the battle.
"Inside the South Transept, falling timbers and molten lead had forced firefighters to withdraw. Away from the immediate danger inside, Minster staff and other volunteers, some with wetted handkerchiefs tied over their faces, toiled frantically in the smoky atmosphere to remove as many of the historic and valuable artefacts as possible."
He says the fire was spreading rapidly and the roof was beyond saving: the priority was instead to prevent the blaze spreading to the roofs of the Central Tower, Nave and Choir.
"If it had spread, it would have left the entire cathedral a burnt-out shell. It was dependant on the courage, skills and dedication of the firefighters to prevent this happening. This beautiful building had to be saved."
He says the turning point in the battle came when the South Transept roof suddenly collapsed onto the floor with a thunderous crash, followed by a strange stillness. At a stroke, the risk of the fire spreading was almost removed.
As the fire came under control at 5.24am, he felt a mixture of relief, stress and tiredness. "I felt the shock and horror and almost disbelief as I gazed through the smoke-laden interior, with shafts of morning sunlight coming in. Although during my career I had attended many serious fires, nothing in my experience had ever had such an impact on me."
He says an incredibly comprehensive investigation after the fire revealed it was probably caused by the Minster being struck by lightning, which many members of the public and firefighters themselves had seen in the sky over York earlier that night. A series of measures were then taken to ensure it could never happen again, while a massive restoration scheme got underway.
*Do you recall the night the Minster caught fire - and were you involved in the battle to save it? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 01904 567263.
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