Northern Ireland news

Primark fire: Historic Belfast building 'still at risk of collapse'

An aerial image of the Primark store gutted by fire in Belfast city centre. Picture by Gregory Weeks
Brendan Hughes

THE flagship Primark building in Belfast city centre which was gutted by a major fire is still at risk of collapse, fire crews have warned.

A 45-metre exclusion zone is likely to remain in place for days to come amid growing fears over the structural integrity of the historic Bank Buildings.

Engineers will assess whether the iconic sandstone facade of the listed building can be saved.

Firefighters yesterday continued to douse hot spots in the smouldering shell of the five-storey structure in the wake of Tuesday's blaze – one of the biggest fires witnessed in the city in years.

All internal floors collapsed in on each other as the fire spread from the top and engulfed the building, leaving only the sandstone facade intact.

It is suspected the fire was connected to work being carried out on the roof as part of a £30 million redevelopment. However, fire officials have said it is too early to pinpoint a cause of the blaze.

Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) area commander Aidan Jennings said the building was at risk of collapsing due to a "significant amount of twisted steelwork and collapsed floors".

He said there was a "significant collapse within that front part of the structure", and engineers were working to establish the extent of the damage and whether the facade could be saved.

"There is still a risk it could collapse and that's why we have the cordons in place," he added.

"At the facade of the building you can see the structural damage and the collapsed and twisted steel but we can't access that area because of risk of it collapsing."

Water supplies from the nearby River Lagan were used to help extinguish the blaze after fire crews were called to the scene at 11am on Tuesday.

The extension adding 30,000 sq ft to the rear of the building as part of refurbishment works, which were nearing completion, was saved from the blaze.

Firefighters were yesterday continuing to deal with areas of rubble, stock and timber still burning under the collapsed structures.

"It's very difficult conditions and the temperature is extreme," Mr Jennings said.

"On a number of occasions we had to withdraw fire crews from the concrete stairs due to the collapses inside the building causing heat.

"This has been very much a team effort, not just with fire crew but all agencies."

Several multi-agency meetings were held yesterday to discuss future plans for Primark staff and assistance for other businesses impacted by the disruption.

Belfast lord mayor Deirdre Hargey, who was among those who met officials, said it was too early to say whether the facade of the historic building could be saved.

"We also discussed keeping the city centre open for business. We all need to pull together and ensure we secure the site and get people back into work again," she said.

The closed-off area includes several small independent businesses.

"We need to get them back up and running again," Ms Hargey added.

"It's been devastating – I've been speaking with the Primark staff. There's 360 staff and they are like a family so they're really impacted by this.

"It's a real sense of loss to them.

"We will look at all avenues to get this back up and running again or see whether Primark can relocate somewhere else to make sure the employees have employment.

"Firefighters have been working tirelessly around the clock and we have to give them their full support."

An evening street fair due to take place at Castle Street this evening has inevitably been postponed.

Land and Property Services has encouraged businesses impacted by the fire to contact them to discuss support available for rates.

In a fresh statement, Primark said the welfare of its staff "remains our most important concern and we are fully committed to supporting them during this difficult time".

"Our management team in Belfast are meeting their colleagues over the next few days to provide them with the necessary support and information," a spokeswoman said.

"We are continuing to work with the relevant authorities to determine the cause of the fire.

"We would like to thank everyone for their amazing support during this very challenging time for all concerned."

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