Nearly 2,000 pupils were evacuated from two west Belfast schools today when a major fire broke out in the former Bass Ireland brewery.
Fears of asbestos particles in heavy smoke billowing from the old plant prompted the PSNI and Fire & Rescue Service to recommend a shutdown of the schools nearby on the Glen Road.
More than 1,100 pupils at St Mary Christian Brothers Grammar School were sent home, swiftly followed by 600 from the La Salle school.
Jim Sherrin, Vice principle at St Mary’s said the police and fire service had told them the make a precautionary evacuation “because of the dangers of asbestos and the fact that the building is an old building. I understand why the Fire service wouldn’t want to take any chances.”
The Glen Road was closed to traffic for hours and residents living in the area were urged to keep their doors and windows shut tight.
Over 70 firefighters from all over Belfast were involved in dealing with the fire in the three-storey building on the Glen Road.
A spokesman for the Fire & Rescue Service said: “The fire is believed to have started accidentally. There are no reports of any injuries or casualties. The building is currently unoccupied.”
Ten fire appliances from Belfast plus a specialist aerial appliance together with Operational Support Unit and Command Support Unit from Lisburn attended.
SDLP West Belfast Assembly Member Alex Attwood expressed his concern about the fire.
Mr Attwood said: “This is a very worrying development. The age of the Bass Ireland building and the possible asbestos risk means that the emergency services must take all precautions to protect workers, residents and schoolchildren.
“It is also very unfortunate that with the potential loss of jobs announced by InBev, the relocation of premises out of West Belfast, and now the potential loss of buildings with Masonic and heritage value, that this will all result in a triple loss for the area.
“I hope that some of the building might be secured for future heritage use.”