The detective leading a major arson probe into a blaze which tore through a Blackpool shop today said: “Someone could have been killed.”
Det Insp Gareth Willis said the Pit Stop car parts building, on Bloomfield Road, was “decimated” by the blaze, which broke out around 4.45am yesterday.
He spoke out as investigators revealed it is now thought yobs torched a pile of tyres at the back of the premises, which then spread.
One man had to be rescued by firefighters who smashed their way inside, another escaped himself and dozens of residents were evacuated as flames leapt up to 20ft from the ground.
Some 50 firefighters spent hours tackling the blaze. And while no one was injured, Det Insp Gareth Willis, of Blackpool Police, said only the response of residents and firefighters helped prevent a possible fatality.
He said: “Without a doubt, someone could have died.
“If it wasn’t for the intervention of neighbours who raised the alarm and Lancashire Fire and Rescue, I think there would have been tragic circumstances.”
But he stressed how serious the blaze, which firefighters said could have taken out the whole row of terraced houses, was despite nobody being hurt.
Det Insp Willis said the two men who escaped the inferno, above the Pit Stop car parts store on the corner of Dunelt Road, had lost everything in the fire.
He added: “We have now got two homeless people – one of the individuals had the clothes he was stood up in and nothing else.
“The upper floors are completely decimated and are either going to fall down or be pulled down.”
Firefighters had to break down the door to one of the burning flats after the occupant struggled to find his keys.
Blackpool station manager Paul Briggs said: “You couldn’t see down Dunelt Road for all the smoke.
“A hall on the first floor of the premises was just pure flames.” Police closed the road and evacuated 25 people, including families with young children, for around two hours while firefighters got the blaze under control.
Mum Pam Withers, 41, said her daughter woke her up after spotting fire engines outside, shortly before police came to say they had to leave their home.
She added: “I was scared, mainly with the kids being in the house.
“There was a knock on the door and a policeman said ‘you have to get out’. I am just glad everybody got out safe and sound.”
She took her four children – aged three, four, 14 and 16 – outside until the threat to other houses on the street was gone. While firefighters were inside, they were forced to retreat after the building partially collapsed.
Staff at Pit Stop, which was badly damaged during the incident, said they have been waiting for a gate to be put on the alley behind the shop.
One worker said it had been a shock to discover what had happened but he was relieved nobody had been hurt.
Lancashire Police and Lancashire Fire and Rescue have now launched a joint investigation into what caused the fire.