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A firefighter's view on battling the Mac blaze

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Firefighter Alex Muir recalls the heroic efforts by his fire crew to save the Mac on May 23

Our crew at Cowcaddens is a long-established, closely knit, very experienced unit. Five of our firefighters are over 50 years old and have been together for more than 25 years. We’ve been through a great deal together and are as close as family.

The work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh holds great pride of place in Glasgow. His iconic school of art sits, in a quite foreboding manner, on our city’s highest hill. Its breathtaking frontage and beautiful interior only help to further appreciate its grandeur.

It is also the building that Glasgow firefighters talk about in hushed tones. Its geography, nature of use, and water resources would, in our opinion, conspire to make a fire in the school of art a nightmare to fight, its uniqueness and iconic status not withstanding.not withstanding.not withstanding.

We are regular visitors to the Mackintosh building; there have been many false alarms. So on May 23, Group 2 at Cowcaddens were fairly certain we would be back in our canteen enjoying our lunch within 20 minutes.

We were wrong. Within a few seconds we were all involved in a fast-moving, rapidly spreading fire which had spread from the basement to the roof. Attending crews arrived almost simultaneously, and every firefighter threw themselves into the task of not allowing Scotland’s most iconic building to be destroyed. A general feeling of ‘not on our watch’ drove us on.

Visibility was zero and the heat levels were extremely uncomfortable

Two of our 50 year olds, George Gray and Paul Mack, were among the first teams to enter the building. Wearing breathing apparatus and hauling hose lines, they exhausted their air cylinders four times, which represents a wear time of over two and a half hours.

Each time our crews left the building due to low air, they replaced their cylinders and climbed back up the cramped stone stairs to do their bit.

The firefighters gave everything they had, physically and emotionally. We organised the removal of irreplaceable items of national importance, carrying them across a flooded and hose-covered Renfrew Street, and were staggered to learn that some of the items were valued at a million pounds!

Late in the afternoon we approached our senior officers and suggested we put together a team and go back into the building to stop any chance of the fire spreading across the central stairway. This was agreed, and the entire Cowcaddens crew were able to don breathing apparatus, and drag ourselves back up the stairs to the top floors. Two of our officers, Mark Stockton and Alan Morson, supported us on the stairs, keeping an eye out for their boys and ignoring the dreadful conditions.

At one point, all six of us were lying or hunkering down on the third floor; visibility was zero and the heat levels were extremely uncomfortable. We were concerned by the worsening conditions and understood the irony of our entire squad being taken in a single stroke of fate.

We shouted out our names to ensure that no one was missing. When we eventually left the building, we sat on the pavement, in a row, steam pluming off our fire kit, filthy and exhausted. The fire defined the nature of the Scottish firefighter – they are doggedly determined, proud of their city and aware of their legacy.

When I spoke to the one of the art school’s senior managers the following evening, I was able to misquote a great movie line. ‘It’s a miracle the building is still standing,’ he said to me. ‘If it’s a miracle sir, it’s a Delta Attack Branch miracle, with good firefighters behind it.’

He obviously hasn’t seen Zulu in a while.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • The world's Architects and lovers of great Architecture are eternally grateful to those brave firefighters. Thank you Alex and your colleagues.

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