Fourteen firemen and five members of the Glasgow Salvage Corps were killed, making it the worst peace time loss of life for the British Fire Service. It was also one of the tragedies that gained Glasgow the nickname ‘Tinderbox City’.
SARAH SWAIN met Alan Forbes and James Smith, authors of Tinderbox Heroes, a new book that tells the tale of the tragic night, along with other city blazes, to mark the 50th anniversary of the disaster...
John Swanson’s description of the fatal moment is vivid: “There was a roar similar to thunder, and then a long ‘swish’ or ‘boom’ that caused me to look up to see what was happening.
“When I did so, I saw the entire frontage of Section 1 of the bond building blow out into Cheapside Street. I saw a turntable ladder that had been in the middle of the street being completely enveloped by tons of fallen bricks, masonry and dust.
“I heard screams and then there was a sudden silence.”
Mr Swanson, who was soon to become Firemaster of Glasgow Fire Service, was describing the moment the Arbuckle, Smith & Co Ltd. warehouse containing 1,043,088 gallons of proof whisky in vats and barrels and more than 31,107 gallons of rum ignited.
It happened at 7.49pm -- half an hour after the first fire pumps had arrived.
The fierce glow from the flames lit the night sky and clouds of alcohol fumes drifted up through the air to ignite, like giant distress flares.
Initial dispatches of two fire pumps, as well as a turntable ladder and a Salvage Corps tender, were later boosted to 20, as well as the fireboat St Mungo, which could direct jets of water from the River Clyde.
Witnesses described being able to see whisky barrels bursting open to add to a blue flame of fire running down the street.
Peter McGill, station officer at Central Fire Station, was inside the warehouse when the explosion came.
“I heard a rumble and a crash of walls collapsing. We all ran out and I heard a cry of “Help”. I saw then that the wall of what I now know is Section 1 had collapsed,” he wrote in a statement.
“I ran round in the direction from which I had heard the cry for help, and I saw the turnable ladder was more or less engulfed by masonry. There were a group of firemen standing round Fireman Biggerstaff. He was buried up to the waist and he was the person who had been calling for help. He was calling for a tourniquet to apply to his leg.”
Many were not so lucky.
Fire crews in Cheapside Street were so involved in their own drama they did not realise the wall at the rear of the warehouse had also blown out, on to Warroch Street. It was there Glasgow Salvage Corps lost five members and Glasgow Fire Service 11 firemen.
It was decided it would be too dangerous for any attempt to rescue survivors or recover bodies while the fire was still raging.
It took until 6.18am next day to bring it under control.
Then came the distressing task of informing wives and families. Eighteen of the victims were married and 13 were fathers.
Station Officer Bob Aitken had to visit the homes of about seven of the dead firemen.
He said: “The Central Fire Station, it was like a pit disaster, with all the women there asking ‘What’s happening, what’s happening?’
Aitken began his harrowing task at 1.30am.
William Oliver was nine when his father, also William and a member of the Salvage Corps, was killed.
He was in bed when his mother received the news. “I remember wakening up and hearing what I thought was hysterical laughter. My mother had a laugh that on more than one occasion stopped the show in the Pavilion Theatre,” he said.
The next morning, Mrs Oliver came to his room, and he found out her sounds had not been laughter.
A moving aspect of the immediate aftermath of the disaster was the way the men’s funeral -- almost a state occasion -- was organised in seven days.
Fire brigades and other well-wishers from across the UK and the Continent sent almost 400 wreaths.
Flags flew at half mast and about 16,000 people lined High Street and Cathedral Square to watch the funeral cortege, which stretched more than 400 yards.
No cause was ever found for the fire, but an electrical fault or dropped light were thought most likely.
Commemorations of the anniversary, including a service at Glasgow Cathedral, will be held on Sunday, March 28.
Tinderbox Heroes by Alan Forbes and James Smith is launched at Aye Write! at 3.30pm on Tuesday at the Mitchell Library. To book free tickets call 0844 847 1683, visit www.ticketweb.co.uk or call at the Mitchell Library.
THOSE WHO DIED
GLASGOW FIRE SERVICE
Sub Officer James Calder from the West Fire Station; Sub Officer John McPherson and Firemen Christopher Boyle, Alexander Grassie, Edward McMillan, Ian McMillan and William Watson, from the South Fire Station; and Firemen John Allan, Gordon Chapman, William Crocket, Archibald Darroch, Daniel Davidson, Alfred Dickinson and George McIntyre, from the Central Fire Station.
GLASGOW SALVAGE CORPS
Deputy Chief Salvage Officer, Superintendent Edward Murray, Leading Salvageman James McLellan and Salvagemen Gordon McMillan, James Mungall and William Oliver.