A RETIRED York firefighter has recalled how he was almost dragged to death by his own breathing apparatus as he battled the York Minster fire 40 years ago.

Tony Burnett was a 36-year-old firefighter with Acomb’s Red Watch when he prepared for duty at 6pm on the evening of July 8, 1984.

He didn’t realise it – but he was about to play a part in one of the most dramatic moments in York’s modern history.

The call came in the early hours of July 9. And the moment he and his crew neared the Minster, they realised this was not just another false alarm.

“As we neared the Minster the horror was revealed, with smoke billowing from the roof,” he writes, in a feature for The Press today. “It was evident the South Transept was ablaze.”

Using the Minster’s own ladders, Tony and his colleagues clambered up to the South Transept roof – into the teeth of the fire.

Inferno: the York Minster fire of July 9, 1984Inferno: the York Minster fire of July 9, 1984 (Image: Stock)

They gained access to the roof via a small door behind the Rose Window, and began fighting the flames.

“It was roaring like a lion in there,” he recalls. “The fire was ferocious.”


- 'The fire was ferocious - it was roaring like a lion'

York Minster 1984 fire: exhibition to tell story 40 years on

Molten lead from the roof splattered onto the firefighters’ tunics - and Tony’s firefighter’s torch melted into a blob of yellow plastic.

But they battled gamely on.

“The heat was unbelievable,” he recalls. “We were wearing breathing apparatus which weighed 25 kilos. We were also bombarded by the water from the turntable ladder being directed at the roof from below.”

Tony Burnett as a young firefighterTony Burnett as a young firefighter (Image: Tony Burnett)

Then the order came from below to get out. The fear was that the roof was about to collapse – taking the game little band of firefighters with it.

“As my colleagues and I scrambled to safety up the external ladder near the central tower the roof did indeed collapse with a huge roar,” Tony recalls.

“I was at the rear and as it collapsed I flung myself onto the parapet at the side of the walkway fearing I would be going down with the roof - but forgetting that I had the 25 kilo breathing apparatus on my back which almost dislodged me into oblivion.”

Tony and his ‘band of brothers’ managed to make it down to safety – and, exhausted and soaking wet, had a reviving cup of tea at the Dean Court Hotel.

Exhausted firefighters enjoying a well-earned cup of tea in the aftermath of the 1984 Minster fireExhausted firefighters enjoying a well-earned cup of tea in the aftermath of the 1984 Minster fire (Image: Stock)

It soon became clear that the collapse of the South Transept roof had made it easier to fight the fire from the ground. The exhausted Red Watch was stood down.

It wasn’t the end of Tony’s Minster Fire story, however.

A few years later he was one of the firefighters selected to meet Queen Elizabeth II when she visited for a service to mark the completion of the Minster’s restoration.

But Tony, now 76 and living in Holgate, had a clothing malfunction.

“Just before the Queen was due to arrive a button popped off my Fire brigade tunic,” he recalls.

Queen Elizabeth II visiting York Minster in 1988Queen Elizabeth II visiting York Minster in 1988 (Image: Agency)

Fortunately, a crew from TV’s Blue Peter was on the scene because new roof bosses for the restored roof had been designed by children in a Blue Peter competition.

“Biddy Baxter from Blue Peter …produced a safety pin, made a quick repair and saved the day for me!” Tony recalls.

A major new exhibition, ‘Out of the Ashes’, opens at York Minster on Saturday to mark the 40th anniversary of the fire.

It will use eye-witness accounts of the fire and its aftermath to detail the heroic rescue efforts, the clean-up operation, and the subsequent four-year restoration project.

DO you have a story to tell about the 1984 Minster Fire? If so, email stephen.lewis@thepress.co.uk