TWO men helped tackle a blaze which threatened to burn down a Henley steak restaurant.
Stuntman Gary Connery went into Cau in Hart Street and moved some gas bottles away from the flames and was joined by Deputy Mayor Will Hamilton as they ensured staff and customers had got out safely.
Both men were then able to brief fire crews who were called to the blaze at about 11.30am on Tuesday.
A 50ft plume of smoke could be seen above the building as the fire in the garden area at the back of the restaurant raged.
It is believed to have started in some bins and spread to a timber storeroom and the flames were fuelled by old cooking oil stored there, producing temperatures of 1,300 degrees Celsius.
Three fire crews from Henley, Wargrave and High Wycombe were initially called to the scene and nearby shops and businesses were evacuated.
Firefighters entered the building wearing breathing apparatus and used high pressure water jets to attack the fire and prevent it from spreading to adjacent buildings.
Hart Street and Friday Street were closed, causing congestion in the town centre and queues of traffic on approach roads throughout the afternoon.
Mr Connery, of Ancastle Green, Henley, was in Thames Side when he saw the smoke and ran round the corner to the restaurant to see the staff already gathered outside.
He said: “I went into the doorway and they said I couldn’t go in there but I said ‘yes, I can’.
“I ran through to the garden and noticed a couple of gas bottles. I moved them and did a quick assessment when I noticed it had spread to an outbuilding which looked like a refrigeration unit.
“I called to Will to help move tables to open an access point. I did another assessment of the situation so we could brief the fire service when they arrived.
“When they arrived I helped them run hoses through and briefed them on what I had seen. There was a lot of smoke.”
Councillor Hamilton helped to evacuate people in neighbouring properties.
He said: “I had to brief the fire service about what was there with the gas bottles and cooking oils.
“It looked like the fire had started in a corner area and was gradually moving along.
“I went in to make sure people were safe and the people upstairs knew what the problem was.
“Gary took pictures to show the fire service when they arrived so they could see how it had spread.”
Chef Joshua Worthington was working when the head chef told him to get a bucket of water.
He said: “We thought it was going to be a little fire but as soon as I had got the bucket of water ready they told me to get out because there a big fire spreading. There was a lot of black and grey smoke.”
Fellow chef Wojtak Tabaka added: “Someone saw the fire and straight away all the gas was switched off and we ran out of the restaurant. There was dirty oil from the fryers in the back.”
Jasper Allden, a student at the Henley College, said: “Smoke was billowing out. It was quite dark and yellow and you could smell it - it was like burning rubber.”
William Claxton, of Hart Street, said: “I was coming from the other side of town and saw black smoke when I was in Friday Street.
“I wasn't sure what was causing it but the smoke was going towards the Old Rectory. The fire engines arrived and then the police asked us to move away.”
Charlotte Mellor, lettings manager at Romans estate agents in Hart Street, was on the phone when she first saw the smoke.
She said: “I saw 40ft lames and billows of black smoke. We evacuated and spent three-and-a-half hours going up and down Hart Street waiting to get back in. At one point they said it might be 6pm. We were closed for nearly four hours.”
Firefighters spent the afternoon and early evening damping down and demolishing what remained of the timber outbuilding.
A total of about 35 firefighters from Henley, Wallingford, High Wycombe and Reading were involved together with a support unit from Eynsham fire station.
Station manager Marcus Reay said: “Fortunately our speed and weight of response meant we were able to attack the fire without delay and prevent it from spreading to adjacent buildings.
“The manner in which fire crews from across the Thames Valley worked in partnership is testament to our joint procedures and training and I am glad to report that despite the very hot conditions at this fire, no injuries were sustained.”
Hart Street was partially opened one way at 3.30pm when traffic was allowed to come over Henley Bridge into the town. The road fully re-opened at about 8pm when the firefighters had left.
Charley Springall, head of marketing for Cau Restaurants, said: “The considerable damage at Cau Henley has been devastating.
“However, we are hugely relieved that no guests and staff were harmed or injured.
“We are extremely grateful to the county fire brigade and the local police who arrived on site quickly and acted bravely and efficiently to secure the area, putting in place suitable precautions to ensure that the fire was swiftly bought under control and extinguished.
“On behalf of Cau Restaurants, we would like to thank the staff at Cau Henley, the local community and surrounding businesses for their messages of support and offers of help, which have been much appreciated.
“We apologise for any inconvenience this may have caused for our customers and look forward to opening as good as new very soon.”
The restaurant will be closed for a few days while repairs take place.
The cause of the fire is not yet known but one theory is that it was an electrical fault.
Cau opened in January 2015 at the former La Bodega premises, a Spanish tapas restaurant, following a £1 million refurbishment.
It is part of a chain inspired by Argentinian cuisine and specialises in steak.