In the early hours of the afternoon, 8th May 1979, a fire broke out on the second floor furnishig department of the Manchester branch of Woolworths.  The fire, believed to have been started by a damaged electrical cable with polyurethane sofas stacked in front of it, burnt at 7000C in the early stages and released a deadly cyanide gas, a single breath of which was enough to kill.  It led to the deaths of 10 people including 9 shoppers and 1 member of staff; a further 47 people were taken to hospital.  Woolworths was a large department store, consisting of 6 floors and a further two basements levels.

    The fire was first noticed by a taxi driver in a nearby taxi rank, who called his controller to tell her of the fire.  Minutes later, when the fire engines arrived, the top floor was fully ablaze.  Of the 12 calls received by the fire brigade informing them of the fire, not one of them came from inside Woolworths.

    When the brigade got to the scene, they were met not only with the sight of flames and smoke billowing from the second floor, but women on the second floor frantically calling for help through barred windows, and some who had made their way to the roof and were shouting for assistance.  They immediately began making rescues with the equipment and ladders they had at their disposal, saving all that they could, attempting to use pick axes and crow bars to pry open the barred windows whilst cutting gear was made ready.

    The Fire Brigade lost precious time cutting through the bars to release the trapped people. Worse still was that some exit doors had been locked shut to prevent shoplifters from slipping out without paying; others had 'break glass for key' arrangements, which had already been discredited in incidents elsewhere. 

    According to the records on UK Fire Service Resources:

  • 26 people were rescued by the fire brigade;
  • 6 others were assisted from the building by the fire brigade;
  • 6 firemen received minor injuries;
  • 90% of the second floor was seriously damaged by the fire;
  • The third, fourth and fifth floors were severely damaged by smoke;
  • The first floor was slightly damaged by fire;
  • The stock on the first floor, ground floor and basement was damaged by water.

    Retired cosmetics sales rep Gerald Richardson, 67, is believed to be the last person who was rescued from the Woolworths fire.  He recalled his terror at being surrounded by smoke as he worked alone in the store's fourth-floor store room.  He tells of how ‘Thick black smoke was billowing through the doors blocking my way out and I knew I was in serious trouble.’ 

    He smashed a window and stepped outside onto a narrow ledge to escape the choking fumes. He was later led to safety by firemen.  “I was one of the lucky ones - it was just a matter of chance that I wasn't one of the ones who died” He said. “If any good thing came out of the Woolworths fire, then it was the tightening up safety regulations.” 

    An inquiry held shortly after the fire found that although the building met all relevant legal requirements at the time, the casualty rate was in part due to the lack of a sprinkler system to stop the spread of the fire, partly because of the polyurethane foam used in the furnishings, partly because of the failure of the fire alarms and also because of the behaviour of the customers. 

    The building was equipped with a mains-fed alarm with alarm bells and break-glass call-points on each floor. However, when the alarm was raised, the sounders operated for only 3 to 4 minutes – it appeared that local failure of a call-point due to heat from a fire would prevent the rest of the alarms from operating. 

    The tragedy has become a significant object of study for those interested in the reactions of the public in emergency situations, after it was discovered that a number of customers – mainly in the restaurant area – refused to leave the store, regardless of the alarms and the pleading of staff; Reports indicate that some customers even continued to queue at an abandoned check-out.  It is suggested that those in the restaurant section simply refused to leave because they had just paid for their meals/drinks, and wanted to make the most of their money.  The bodies of all those who died in the fire were found by a fire exit in the restaurant section.  It is thought that the smoke was so deadly and moved so quickly that they did not have time to react and were overcome before they could even reach the exit.

    Assistant County Fire Officer Bob Graham, who led the blaze inquiry, later campaigned tirelessly for a change in the law to improve the safety of soft furnishings.  His cause was championed by Tony Blair, the shadow trade spokesman at the time, who helped bring legislation to Parliament in 1988.

    The catastrophe not only led to legislation placing a ban on polyurethane foams in home furnishing, it also led to scientific research into the development of a suitable sprinkler system.

   However, there are still some manufacturers who have not learned from the Woolworths fire or heeded the legislation that followed, despite the sad recollections of Gerald Richardson and the distressed cautions from the fire brigade.

    Mr Graham, who now works for the Alliance of Consumer Fire Safety in Europe, told of his dismay to hear of how some manufacturers had failed to learn from the Woolworths legacy.

    ''The situation is dreadful,'' he said. ''The latest research by the Department of Trade and Industry estimates that between 1988 and 2000 the regulations have saved at least 3,000 lives and prevented more than 30,000 injuries.

    ''If a fatality occurred and it could be demonstrated the safety requirements had been breached, then manufacturers and retailers would be facing much more than a trading standards prosecution.''

  Collated by Philip Turnbull


Resources used:

Registered Office: Southwold House, 66 Botley Road, Park Gate, Southampton, United Kingdom. Company Number: 07810000