Day the ballroom burned

IT WAS saved by a miracle, the hard work of fearless firefighters, and the caprice of the wind. It is 50 years to the day since Blackpool Tower was saved from complete destruction by fire.

The alarm was sounded, by the Tower's relief fireman Sam Souter, who smelled burning, at just after 6.30am. Blackpool Brigade and other Tower firemen arrived within ONE MINUTE, and got the inferno under control more than five hours later.

The fire, thought to have been sparked by a cigarette end, took hold between the ballroom floor and the buffet bar roof.

Dr JB Firth, 68, forensic scientist, and described as the "Sherlock Holmes of Fire Detection", later concluded that a carelessly discarded cigarette end had set light to an office armchair.

It smouldered through the night and flared up with devastating consequences. Two hours after the last routine inspection had revealed nothing, the fire was consuming the northern end of the famous "Wonderland of the World" as the Tower was known in 1956.

When Blackpool Brigade firemen arrived to join the Tower's own force, they found smoke pouring from windows on the north west corner, fanned by the strong south west wind.

But the fact that the wind stayed southerly rather than west or northwest blew the flames away from the all important centre of the building.

While colleagues played hoses on the flames licking up the outside from a turntable ladder, others carried heavy hose reels through the west entrance to the first and second floors and worked their way up from the first floor to the ballroom balcony,where the fire appeared to be under control.

Ballroom spotlights were pressed into service to direct the firefighters' quest for the seat of the blaze ... then they realised it was burning UNDER the ballroom floor.

It had crept almost the entire length of the ballroom floor – and in one area broke free and leapt 3ft into the air. The sprinkler system had to switched on twice. At one point the ballroom was under four inches of water and it still wasn't enough to douse the blaze.

Firemen hacked through the floor to release hundreds of gallons of water - creating a run-off into the gutted snack bar and another room below.

The overflow cascaded down the steps of the stairs on the approach to the ballroom and flooded the main entrance and part of the main zoo to a depth of several inches.

Attendants, zoo keepers and other people soaked up the water, sloshing it down the steps, using brushes and squeegees, and out of the zoo.

At 11.45am a section of floor collapsed and fell into the buffet bar below – the gaping hole in the ballroom floor then several yards across.

Tarpaulin had been placed over the giant organ to save it from damage.

Blankets of heavy smoke swept through the complex from the north side of the building through to the aquarium and zoo.

Twenty one birds in the Roof Garden Zoo died, killed by smoke. The curator of the zoo Mr RE Legge succeeded in reviving a dozen other birds.

He also calmed lions and tigers in the zoo by talking to them – all the animals survived the blaze but many became restive at the scent and sight of smoke.

Evening Gazette reporters, relaying the running story on copy paper back by editorial runners to the nearby news room, reported a scene of "desolation and destruction, a grim waste of smoke, running water, charred wood and fire hoses."

A modest estimate, made by the time the presses rolled for the final edition on the day itself, the Last Extra, put the cost of repair at 250,000 .

Days later Operation Clearance began ... and within three years the Tower had a brand new look.

The tremendous task of restoring the Tower Ballroom, gold leaf and all, started in January, 1957, and fell to 70-year-old Andrew Mazzei, as director, who had worked in the ballroom as a boy, and whose father had worked on the original design.

Mr Mazzei, who had won a name designing sets for some of the biggest British films, spent weeks studying the ruined decor from floor to floor, using original photographs as his guide.

A man for whom the spectacular was described as commonplace, Mazzei leapt at the chance to direct the project.

"You are lucky if you get one job like this in a lifetime," he said.

jacqui.morley@

blackpoolgazette.co.uk