Northern Ireland news

Shoppers 'herded towards the flames' during Primark evacuation

 An aerial view of the devastation caused to Primark and the Bank Buildings. Picture by Gregory Weeks
Bimpe Archer and Marie Louise McConville

SHOPPERS on the third floor of the burning Primark building have told how they were herded towards the flames after their escape route was blocked by cages of clothes.

Fire broke out at the historic Bank Buildings at around 11am while construction work was taking place on the roof.

Smoke alarms went off and evacuation of the building began immediately, however, there was initially confusion about whether or not it was a false alarm.

"I was wandering off to the toilets when someone said `No, it's not a fire drill, we need to get out'," one assistant who did not want to be named said.

"It wasn't as busy as a weekend would have been but there were a good few shoppers in."

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Gemma Gilvary and her friend Frances Corrigan were on the third floor of the building when the smoke alarms sounded.

"I just thought it was a fire drill when someone told us we all had to get out. It was all dead slow, everybody was putting stuff back and people were walking towards the elevators.

"They had been turned off and we were told we had to go towards the front of the building to these big double doors to get to the stairs.

"There was a queue of people standing and we were all standing there for a good five minutes or more when staff came and said `We can't' get out that way, it's all blocked with cages of clothes'.

"There was a fella standing with a baby in his arms who said `Jesus, if this was a real fire we're all dead'.

"We were sent to the other end of the building, but we were all still lackadaisical, but could see staff and everyone starting to panic.

"I thought then that I smelled smoke, but I didn't know if I was imagining it.

"Then as we got towards the back we started to see smoke. We got to the double doors and the stairs and there were staff bring people up the stairs.

"People were following them up and I was shouting `Why are you taking people upstairs? We're not going up them stairs, we're going down'.

"I shouted to a couple of girls that worked there that people were being taken upstairs and they called for them to come down. We were told to walk down the escalators.

"Black smoke started coming from everywhere, everyone was coughing and you couldn't breathe. A fireman came running upstairs and suddenly everyone was panicking."

 Primark in flames on Belfast's Royal Avenue

Ms Gilvary estimates it took between 10-15 minutes from the first alarm sounded for everyone to get out.

She was full of praise for Primark staff who tried to keep everyone calm.

"There were these young girls looking after this old man who could hardly walk and his wife. They were so good with him and so calm, even though they must have been scared on the inside."

Smoke continued to billow from the top of the building and within an hour flames burst through the roof.

A north Belfast mother-of-three also told of how cages of clothes blocked a fire exit as she tried to escape the blaze with her six-month-old daughter.

 Monica Liddy and daughter Ionah

Monica Liddy was in the store with her baby daughter, Ionah, sister, Kerry and eight-year-old nephew, Caodhan when the "traumatising" event unfolded at around 11am.

The 28-year-old said she and her family were shopping on the top floor of the building in the childrenswear department when her nephew said he smelt smoke.

The fire alarms then began to sound.

"I had the child in the pram," she said.

"Everybody thought it was a drill. I walked over to the escalator and it was stopped.

"I got the child out of the pram and went to the fire exit. They were getting everybody out.

"We were going down the stairs and I heard one of the girls saying they couldn't get out. There were clothes in front of the fire exit, cages of clothes. It was about two or three minutes. It felt like 20. All the staff got there and got all the cages out of the road."

 People taking pictures and videos of the fire at Primark on Royal Avenue

Ms Liddy praised Primark staff, telling how they had been "really, really good" even making attempts to calm her eight-year-old nephew, who was "in hysterics".

"It was traumatising," she said.

"The staff and managers were in tears looking at the building just burning. It was wild. It just went up so quick".

"I'm glad we're safe".

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