The good people of Blanford were deeply ashamed of the broken-down tenement building that stood at the edge of the town.
Many appeals had been made to the owner to pull it down and to rehouse the inhabitants, but the rich landlord would brook no argument in letting it remain standing.
He was getting a lucrative income from the property, and he intended to wait until the Council made him an offer that he couldn’t refuse for the building.
Let them pull it down and rehouse the dwellers!
My girl-friend Martha and I lived on the very top floor of this eyesore of a building, along with an assortment of hippies, Council tenants, and immigrants from many countries.
We lived in a sort of harmony, with not many disputes, and life was bearable, as long as we were willing to turn a blind-eye to the occasional drug-dealing or prostitute- activity that took place in a couple of the apartments.
We really had no alternative.
We were unemployed and unemployable.
Work was scarce, and cheap comfortable accommodation was even scarcer.
Then came the night that was to change the lives of many of us. The night of the fire.
I was awakened by the faint smell of smoke, and at first I thought I was imagining it, but then I saw the reflections of flames in the window of an adjacent property, and then I heard it … the sound of children screaming echoing along the long corridors of the building.
Not having a phone ourselves we were hoping that someone had raised the alarm with the fire department.
At the fire station most of the fire crew were enjoying a game of snooker or watching TV, whilst others were catching up on some well-needed sleep.
It had been a quiet night and the Commander had had them re-roll the hoses and clean the already gleaming fire-engine.
Everything was in its correct place, and they were ready to go at a moments notice.
When the alarm finally came through the Commander read the address of the emergency and lit a cigarette.
“It’s that dump on the edge of town,” he laughed.
“Let it burn awhile, they’ll never know we are late in coming.”
He continued to enjoy his cigarette seemingly oblivious as to the seriousness of the fire that he was about to face in the coming night.
His crew were agitated by his behaviour, but it was not their place to question his authority.
Nevertheless, they donned their equipment and made ready to depart the station.
The Commander finally extinguished his cigarette and said, “OK, let’s get going.”
He jumped into the front seat of the fire-engine and they sped out of the station with the siren screaming its warning to any other traffic in its path forward.
By this time the fire, which had started somewhere on the ground-floor had worked its way up to the sixth floor. The smoke was thick and poisonous.
Martha and I had no chance of escaping to the street as the stairways were engulfed in flames.
We barricaded the door and stuffed wet clothes under the gap at the bottom of the door. Hopefully this would keep the smoke at bay, but it wouldn’t stop the flames.
We managed to force the window open and hung out of it gulping huge lung-full’s of fresh air.
It seemed that we were not going to escape the ravages of the fire, and Martha offered up a silent prayer to a God that neither of us really believed existed.
The fire-engine screamed into the street and the Commander exclaimed, “My God.”
He hadn’t imagined that this fire was going to develop into the nightmare that it had.
He hastily summoned more help, and prayed that they would get here quicker than he had.
Almost the whole of the first four floors were now bathed in flames, and the screaming had quietened considerably.
I could only imagine that those occupants were already dead or dying.
The Commander set about instructing his crew and very soon an extendable ladder was being used to ferry those closest to the flames to safety.
The sound of more approaching fire-engines was music to our ears, and soon there were five huge engines in attendance. Their Commanders’ deployed them in the limited space and many hoses were being used to quench the hungry flames.
People were being lowered to the street in an orderly fashion, and it wasn’t long before the long ladder was before Martha and me.
We both gratefully accepted the assistance of the fireman who was about to save our lives.
As the ladder was retracted we were able to see the extent of the damage that the fire had caused, and we realised that we were lucky to be escaping with our lives.
We were taked to a nearby hospital and treated for smoke inhalation. The next day we were given temporary accommodation by the council.
There were forty-two people who had died that night in the fire.
The inquest, when it was held some weeks later, was unable to ascertain whether the fire was the result of an accident, or whether it was someone’s idea of a joke.
The owner, who it turned out had no insurance on the building, was given a three-years prison sentence.
The fire-station Commander was dismissed from the service due to his negligent behaviour. He left the district soon after.
The only good thing that came from this, was that the Council were able to demolish what was left of the tenement, and a children’s playground was established in its place.
Martha and I are now married with a young family, and we live in a house.
No more tenements for us.