Northern Ireland news

Fire service begins probe of Belfast Primark building fire

A drone surveying the damage to the Primark building in Belfast city centre. Picture by Hugh Russell
Brendan Hughes

FIREFIGHTERS have begun to investigate the cause of the blaze which destroyed central Belfast’s Primark building.

Pockets of fire were still burning in the charred shell of the former Bank Buildings on Thursday after a further structural collapse overnight.

A cordon was reduced in size as fire crews scaled back their operation, allowing some neighbouring shops to reopen. Fourteen businesses remained within the cordon, the fire service said. The exclusion zone is expected to continue for some time amid fears that the historic five-storey structure could still collapse.

On Thursday night a fire service spokesperson said: “Fire investigation officers will now begin conducting their investigation to determine the cause of the fire.”

One fire engine remained at the scene as a precautionary measure.

On Thursday drones were brought in to examine the damage as engineers assessed whether the iconic sandstone facade of the listed building could be saved.

Tuesday’s blaze was one of the biggest fires witnessed in the city in years.

More than 350 people worked at the store, which was being extended as part of a £30 million refurbishment that was nearing completion.

It is suspected the fire was connected to work being carried out on the roof as part of the redevelopment. However, fire officials have said it is too early to pinpoint a cause.

Belfast City Council is responsible for building control and carrying out inspections of retail outlets to ensure compliance with health and safety standards.

A spokeswoman said its last health and safety visit to Bank Buildings was on June 15 this year. It focused on “advice on slips, trips and falls in the workplace”.

“It is the business owner’s responsibility to comply with health and safety legislation. Belfast City Council supports businesses by monitoring compliance and providing advice,” she added.

“Any issues or concerns relating to fire safety that council officers discover during routine visits are passed to the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service as the enforcing authority. No such issues had been identified at the Primark store in Bank Buildings.”

When asked about the building, the Health and Safety Executive initially indicated it had no role in inspecting it and referred queries to the council. 

However, the council said that “for construction sites, health and safety matters are the responsibility of the Health and Safety Executive”, adding: “Council does not carry out inspections of construction sites.”

In a further response the Health and Safety Executive declined to comment.

“We are unable to make any comment until the findings of the fire service examinations are available,” a spokeswoman said.

Fire service operations at the building were scaled back yesterday to three fire engines – and later to one.

“Firefighters are continuing to deal with small pockets of fire still burning within the building,” a spokeswoman said.

“There has been further structural collapse within the building overnight. We continue to work with partner agencies to bring the incident to conclusion.”

The service carries out inspections of commercial premises to ensure enforcement and adherence to fire safety regulations.

It said its last full audit of the building was more than five years ago on January 24 2013, during which the centuries-old premises was found to have a “satisfactory level of fire safety arrangements”.

Lord Mayor Deirdre Hargey said “every effort” would be made “to preserve the building and save the façade”.

“Council is committed to doing everything it can to assist in the recovery operation and keep Belfast city centre open for business, and it’s important that as a city, we rally round to support those affected by this devastating event,” the Sinn Féin councillor said.

“The first priority for all those involved in the recovery operation must be to make the building and surrounding area safe.

“Bank Buildings is an important part of Belfast’s built heritage and the damage to this beautiful building has caused a real sense of sadness and shock. Every effort will be made to preserve the building and save the façade.

“Belfast City Council will continue to host meetings for key holders and businesses to provide information and support in the days ahead.”

The scene at the Belfast Primark store on day 3 Picture by Hugh Russell.

The scene at the Belfast Primark store on day 3 Picture by Hugh Russell.

The scene at the Belfast Primark store on day 3 Picture by Hugh Russell.

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