St Johns Precinct opened to the public on 6th April 1970, the six and a half acres site comprised of 250,000 square foot spread over two levels of traffic free , air conditioned shopping. Connected by stairs, lifts and escalators with underground loading facilities. The complex also contains the 162 bed roomed St. Georges Hotel, a 500 car multi storey car park, licensed premises and shops. Above it rose the 450ft St Johns Beacon housing a revolving restaurant.
At approx 2130hrs, Monday 17th December 1979, the automatic alarm at Brentford Nylons in the precinct activated and officers started to attend at the scene. As officers approached the precinct they could see large clouds of smoke coming from the Elliot Street side of the Precinct.
Constables 5953 ’A’ Fawcett, 5516 ’A’ Mason, 4868 ’A’ Caren, and 6025 ’A’ Ridd entered the lower level of the precinct and made a search for any persons in the area which was beginning to fill with smoke. Constables Ridd, Caren and Mason attempted to climb one of the escalators but when three quarters of the way up the smoke became too thick and dense that you could not see your hand in front of your face. The officers returned to the lower level.
Constables Ridd, Mason, and Caren made their way to the Roe Street side of the Precinct after making an attempt to fight the fire with the on site fire hose reels but due to the heat and smoke were unable to do so. Constables Ridd and Mason then make their way to St. Georges Hotel. Constable Caren made his way to Quinns Public House, informs the staff of the fire and assists in evacuating approximately 120 persons from the premises, the officer then goes to the Penny Farthing Public House and evacuates approximately 60/70 persons from the premises.
At about 2140hrs Sergeants 2939 ’A’ Saunders, 2504 ’A’ Mcleod, 4243 ’A’ Watson and 3012 ’A’ Rimmer attend the precinct on the Lime Street side below the hotel, where they could hear shouting from inside the Precinct. The Sergeants made two attempts to enter Market way to reach the source of the shouts but after approx 70ft are beaten back by the thick smoke and heat.
At approximately the same time Constable 4973 ‘OSD’ Houghton and 3839 ’OSD’ Pugh are at the Charlotte Way entrance to the Precinct and also heard shouting from inside but after three attempts to reach the trapped persons are also beaten back by the dense smoke and heat. Constables Fawcett and 5168’A’ Sinclair, and 5350 ’A’ Jones join the two ’OSD’ officers who are suffering the effects of smoke. Constables Fawcett and Sinclair entered Charlotte Way, run and crawl approximately 180ft and reach two trapped males at the entrance to the market hall. The officers then return along Charlotte Way with the two men where they were met by Constables Pugh and Houghton who assist all four to exit the Precinct. The rescued males where Edward O’Hare [cleaner] and Carlos Crech [security].
On hearing of the rescue, Sgts Watson, Rimmer, Mcleod and Saunders make their way to St. Georges Hotel where they are joined by Constables Ridd, Mason, Carden, W/Constable 5878 ’A’ Hegarty, W/Constable 4550 ’A’ Spencer, also Constables 4796 ’A’ Middleton and 3726 ’A’ Worthington who were in Plain Clothes. The officers assisted in the evacuation, search and safety of the Hotel staff and guests. With the assistance of a member of staff Constables Ridd and Mason searched all eight floors and one person was found on the 5th floor and evacuated.
At approximately 2220hrs with fire spreading rapidly Merseyside Fire Brigade requested that all vehicles be removed from the multi storey car park due to the danger of fuel tanks exploding. Inspector Jackson instructed Sergeants Watson, Rimmer, Saunders and Mcleod to deploy officers to assist in the removal of the vehicles. Approximately 100 owners were located and in groups of four were escorted into the car park and to collect their vehicles. A record was kept logging them in and out of the car park.
The remaining vehicles where towed out of the car park, but due to the low ceiling of the car park normal tow trucks could not enter the car park, smaller vehicles were used to tow them to the exit of the car park then the larger trucks took them onto St Georges Plateau where officers were detailed to protect the vehicles.
According to the fire brigade 25 Appliances and 10 ’Special’ Appliances attended the fire from Merseyside, Lancashire, and Cheshire Brigades.
The fire was brought under control at about 0500hrs Tuesday 18th December.
At least three officers attended the Royal Liverpool Hospital and were treated for the effects of inhaling smoke and were advised to go off duty.
Many more officers where in attendance manning a cordon that eventually surrounded the Precinct for public safety and to stop unaurthorised access to the Precinct for many hours. Apart from the acrid smell of smoke these officers also faced other dangers, e.g. at the Houghton Street side of the Precinct the ceramic tiles on the wall of the Precinct where exploding and then cascading down onto the area below. One of the Officers deployed to the car park to drag out the parked vehicles, was the late Constable 5951 Ray Davenport.
As a result of the incident two officers were awarded the Queens Commendation for Brave Conduct and an Award of Merit [ Merit Badge ] for their actions at the Precinct. Whilst the majority of the other officers named where awarded either a Chief Constables or Chief Superintendents Commendation.
On Christmas day the following week, Officers from Green Group, Copperas Hill on afternoon duty arrested a number of temporary security guards [ not Property Guards ] who had been brought in to protect the insecure premises for theft from those premises in the Precinct.
Richie Fawcett, July 2012
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