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Primark building fire a devastating blow to Belfast city centre

The massive fire which destroyed the landmark Primark building in Belfast yesterday is a devastating blow to the city centre and its impact will be widely felt.

Of primary importance is the fact that no one was injured after a blaze broke out on the top floor of the listed building, which had been undergoing a £30 million redevelopment.

We must be thankful that everyone in the store was safely evacuated but many people will be saddened that the fire took hold to the extent that it swept through every level of the five-storey structure, leaving it completely gutted.

A number of shops, offices and cafes were forced to close as thick smoke, which could be seen from miles away, billowed across the city.

We do not yet know when all affected businesses will be able to return to normal or what the cost will be in terms of lost trade and smoke damaged stock.

Hundreds of shoppers and city centre workers gathered to watch the fire rage over a period of several hours while firefighters tried to bring it under control and prevent it from spreading.

For many, witnessing part of Belfast's rich architectural history engulfed in flames was a sickening sight.

Bank Buildings dates back to 1787 and has been through a number of incarnations over the decades. During the Troubles the well known department store, as it then was, suffered extensive damage following three bomb blasts in 1975.

In 1979, Bank Buildings was taken over by Primark, who refurbished the building and restored the exterior.

The store is regarded as the busiest in Belfast, seeing thousands of customers coming through its doors every day and bringing a significant footfall to the city centre.

There will be fears that the loss of such a major retail hub, particularly in the crucial autumn period, could have severe implications for a high street already struggling to attract shoppers in the face of stiff online competition.

The hundreds of staff who work at Primark will also be worried about the future and will be looking to management to provide reassurances about their jobs as soon as possible.

There is no doubt this is an enormous setback to the company and its ambitious investment in Bank Buildings which would have brought additional jobs within a matter of weeks.

Those plans now lie in ruins but Primark's many customers will be hoping the retailer finds alternative premises within a short time and continues its significant presence in the city centre.

It must also be hoped the investigation into this fire quickly determines how it started and why it spread with such ferocity.

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