Friday, 20 July 2018

3am inferno at council HQ

STAFF at South Oxfordshire District Council are fighting to restore services after a fire ripped through their offices.

STAFF at South Oxfordshire District Council are fighting to restore services after a fire ripped through their offices.

The two-storey building in Crowmarsh Gifford was severely damaged in the blaze, which began in the early hours of Thursday last week.

It was one of three fires in the area at the same time which took 27 fire crews to tackle.

A second fire happened at Chadwick Funeral Directors in Benson Lane, Crowmarsh Gifford, while the other was at a thatched cottage at Quakers Corner in Roke Marsh, near Benson.

Jean Gladstone, 80, who owns the cottage, was at home but escaped unharmed.

Thirteen crews from Berkshire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Wiltshire were called to the fire on the first floor of the council offices at 3.20am.

They spent several hours bringing the blaze under control and had to return that night after strong winds re-ignited the flames.

Police said gas canisters were found at all three sites and a bomb disposal team was called to the offices, where 400 people worked.

The building is being checked for structural damage and may have to be demolished.

Council leader John Cotton said: “I’d like to express my thanks to the Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service. It looks like their fast actions have saved a large part of the building and we’re very grateful for that.”

The council has put its contingency plan in place and staff are working from the council’s offices in Abingdon and at the Beacon in Wantage as well as from home.

Eyewitnesses described seeing the orange glow of the fire at the building.

Tash Altay, of Jethro Tull Gardens, Crowmarsh Gifford, said: “We were 30 or 40 metres away but you could see the blaze. The top floor on the north end was totally in flames.”

Ann and David Beasley, who live in neighbouring Winters Field, were woken up by the sound of the flames tearing through the building.

Mrs Beasley said: “We could see flames shooting up over the reception building and I said to David that it looked really bad.

“The noise was awful — it was like a fireworks display. You could hear glass shattering constantly and there were two big explosions. It was horrific.

“I was really scared. I rang my son and just burst into tears down the phone. I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s very scary and upsetting when it happens on your doorstep.”

Howard Chadwick, who runs the funeral directors with wife Sandra and nephew Alistair Cox, said the fire at their premises had caused extensive damage.

He was woken at about 3.15am at his home nearby by a phone call from his fire alarm company.

Mr Chadwick said: “I jumped out of bed and ran down here. There were flames leaping out of the front door.

“I ran in the back where I knew my fire extinguishers were. I picked up three, I think, and ran back and shot them all over and that dampened the fire right down.

“I rushed back and got another two fire extinguishers from the garage. By the time I came back round the flames had started again.”

His brother-in-law, undertaker Neil Cox, who lives next door to the business, had already called the fire service and was trying to extinguish the flames with buckets of water while still in his dressing gown. Minutes later firefighters arrived.

Mr Chadwick said: “The fire brigade smashed the door in and went in with breathing apparatus and sprayed it to dampen it down and then went right the way through the building. They were absolutely brilliant.

“Neil said ‘look at that’ and we noticed the council offices were on fire. We couldn’t believe it and thought ‘what’s happened?’”

The business’s office, kitchen and hallway were all affected but the mortuary was untouched. Mr Chadwick said: “We have notified all our families. The offices won’t be up and running for two to three months so we’re going to run the office part from our home nearby. It’s business as usual — the families come first.”

The family have been clearing the building and seeing what they can salvage and have been helped by family, staff and friends.

Mrs Chadwick said: “Everyone has been so kind and we want to thank them. We’ve had overwhelming support from the public, bereaved families, past families, other funeral directors and people we don’t know from all over the world. I’ve had people turn up at the door with flowers. Somebody’s even offered us a bedroom for the night.”

Miss Gladstone’s Grade II listed cottage, which dates back to the 1640s, was badly damaged by the fire and a large part of the roof was destroyed, having only been rethatched in November.

She woke up to discover the lights were not working.

Miss Gladstone said: “I did smell something rather strange. There was smoke in the kitchen, smoke in the dining room. I opened a door for the little bedroom at the end and, by gosh, I saw flames so I shut the door and ran to my telephone and called 999.

“I just saw this red glow and thought ‘crikey we’re on fire’. I walked down the lane to let the fire brigade know where to come. There seemed to be were hundreds of them. Everybody — the firemen, the police — was magnificent.”

The only thing she left her home with were some flowers given to her as an 80th birthday present by her nephew. Miss Gladstone said: “I celebrated my birthday on January 9 and I’m still on a high really. I think perhaps this will hit me in a few days.

“It’s ghastly inside, of course. It’s all wet because of the water from the hoses. Some of my lovely treasures have gone.”

Miss Gladstone, who has lived at the property for 39 years, is currently staying with a friend locally but returns to care for her horses which live on site.

The firefighters also tackled a fourth fire at a building next door used to house animal feed.

In Roke Marsh about 30 people were evacuated from their homes because of the fire and were helped by the British Red Cross at Berrick Salome and Roke village halls.

Miss Gladstone said: “When I went to the village hall all I had on was my nightdress, a mackintosh with a hood and my Wellington boots. I went to Abingdon police station to give my statement like that.”

The district council said the services that had been affected included planning and building control, environmental health, finance and housing. Waste collections and street cleaning, housing benefits payments and council tax payments continued as normal.

Its online services were being restored this week and the council’s website is live again.

A council spokesman said: “Some parts of our website work on systems that we are still restoring and might not work as normal, for example online application forms and reporting.

“Also, as our phone service isn’t completely restored, some phone numbers may not work. Our planning data is being moved on to our new computer system and we’re awaiting delivery of some new equipment. We are working hard to resume a normal service as soon as possible.”

The meeting of the planning committee scheduled for next Wednesday has been cancelled and the items on the agenda will be considered at a meeting on February 11 at a venue to be decided.

The fire also affected Vale of White Horse District Council whose staff moved into the building from Abingdon last year as part of cost-saving measures by the two councils. Henley’s representatives on the district council spoke of their shock at the fire.

Councillor Elizabeth Hodgkin said: “I am really pleased nobody was injured and nobody was in the building at the time.

“I hope people will be patient with the district council while they try to sort it all out. The chief executive David Buckle is doing very well getting his staff organised and the leader John Cotton is doing a good job keep us all informed.

“It’s more difficult probably for the officers than the councillors because we just turn up where we’re told to but they have to carry on with their work. They are doing very well.” Councillor Jeni Wood, a member of the planning committee, said: “I couldn’t get it into my head that anything like this could happen.

“I was just so glad nobody was in the building. I think that’s the only thing to be grateful for.”

Councillor Will Hall said: “It was very sad to see our little bit of democracy in South Oxfordshire being hurt. When I saw it on TV it was astonishing just how much damage had been done.

“I was there for a meeting about the budget the day before and it was pretty distressing to know you were there one day and the next the whole building has gone.” Cllr Hall paid tribute to the council’s staff, saying they were doing an “incredible” job.

Simon Furlong, assistant chief fire officer for Oxfordshire, said: “The fires in themselves were fairly significant incidents and the added pressure that they were going on simultaneously did provide us some challenges.

“Twenty-seven appliances committed at the same time is a large impact on the service.

“The crews worked really hard I’ve got to say. I’ve only been in Oxfordshire for two years but the professionalism of the crews — and some of them travelled some distance to be there — shone through and they worked really hard in very difficult conditions. They did a cracking job.”

• Andrew Main, 47, a farmer, of Roke Marsh, has been charged with one count of arson with intent to endanger life and two of arson being reckless as to whether life was endangered. He appeared at Oxford Magistrates’ Court on Saturday when he was remanded in custody to appear at Oxford Crown Court next Friday.

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