Cork fire: ‘It was all very slow. It did not look as if it was being dealt with’

Ballinlough Festival Committee was pulling down the shutters on a highly successful end-of-summer event in the community park when some of the children who had been in attendance came racing through a nearby housing estate shouting “Douglas is on fire, Douglas is on fire”.

Cork fire: ‘It was all very slow. It did not look as if it was being dealt with’

Ballinlough Festival Committee was pulling down the shutters on a highly successful end-of-summer event in the community park when some of the children who had been in attendance came racing through a nearby housing estate shouting “Douglas is on fire, Douglas is on fire”.

As householders rushed to their windows and doors, pitch black clouds of thick smoke could be seen billowing high in the air above what’s known locally as Tesco Shopping Centre.

My phone pinged just after 7pm. A friend had texted to say a fire had broken out in the shopping centre’s multi- storey car-park and her car was parked smack bang in the middle of where the drama started — Level One.

Down in the village, hundreds of people had gathered to watch as Cork City Fire Service pumped water furiously into the multi-storey.

Spectators were held at bay by Garda squad cars but it was clear the fire service was facing a significant challenge — with low ceiling clearance, the ramps leading into the car-park would struggle to accommodate a fire engine.

All of the action seemed to be taking place from outside the building, mainly at the city side of the shopping centre, with access trickier for fire tenders from the Church St side.

Shoppers whose cars were trapped in the burning building were gathered mainly on the Church St side, among them Brid Forde.

Ms Forde had returned to her car after completing the weekly shop in Tesco supermarket. Having loaded up the car boot, she was preparing to drive out of Level One.

As she turned a corner towards the exit ramp she noticed smoke and flames.

“I could see a small fire and some smoke. I was a little nervous because at that stage I didn’t know where it was coming from so I turned my car back in the opposite direction.

“I was at the junction where you can turn right to exit or turn left to head towards Level Two. I parked further down on Level One and got out to see what was happening. I wish now I had parked further away.

“At that point, there was a couple of people standing around looking at what was happening. At first, I thought maybe there was a fire in Dennehy’s Gym but a man said it was a car.

“There were shoppers returning to their cars and the group of people watching grew. There was no panic at all at that stage. It was around 7pm.

“About 20-25 people had gathered. I did not hear a fire alarm going off and no sprinklers came on. We were standing around for about 10 minutes watching,” she said.

Ms Forde, from Rochestown Rd, said she saw just one security guard at that point and no one seemed to be moving. Then the security guard started to move people along.

My impression was that everything was moving very slowly. The reaction was slow. It did not look as if the fire was being dealt with.

The security guard moved the shoppers towards the travelator.

Ms Forde said the smoke had started to thicken. The shoppers were asked to leave their shopping at the top of the travelator and to go downstairs. They were told the fire brigade was on the way.

“It was all very calm. As we were going down the travelator, we could hear explosions. Someone remarked that it was probably the car tyres exploding. One woman said her car was parked just two cars down from the car that was on fire. The car was in the middle row of parking bays, closer to the Marks and Spencers end.

“When we went downstairs to the shopping centre it was all very calm. All the Tesco staff and shoppers were being evacuated. One man whose van was trapped on Level One was distraught. He said his life was in his van. I had to leave behind about €200 of shopping in my car.

“The fire brigade started arriving then and I phoned my husband Alan and he came to collect me. We don’t know what the story is about our car, but thankfully nobody was injured.

“Ironically, I had been heading to Douglas Court, but forgot my purse and returned home to get it.

“When I came back towards Douglas I opted for Tescos instead because I wanted to go to Sheehan’s Butchers. I knew they stayed open until 7pm.”

Ms Forde said the fire brigades had to tackle the blaze from outside the multistorey car-park as the ramps on the way in were too low for them to gain entry.

Emily Ryder, age 11, was returning to her car with her mother Vanessa when she saw a red glow reflected off the glass at the top of the travelator that leads to the multistorey car-park in the Tesco Shopping Centre.

“There was a group of people taking a video and when I looked at the video, I saw a fire. The people said there was a car on fire. Then we started hearing loud bangs and the fire started spreading. It was scarey.

“We walked out into the car-park and we could see it was getting worse and worse.”

Emily and her mother had travelled up from Kinsale to get school uniform items at Laura’s Schoolwear which is close to the village. They then decided to pop into the Tesco Shopping Centre and got caught up in the drama.

When I met them, Emily was shivering in a blanket that another woman had given her. That woman’s daughter had also been parked on Level One where the fire broke out and her car was also trapped.

A firefighter tackles the blaze. Photo: Cork City Fire Brigade
A firefighter tackles the blaze. Photo: Cork City Fire Brigade

Emily and Vanessa had to find an alternative way home last night as the family car was one of up to an estimated 60 or so caught up in the blaze.

They moved to Kinsale from Carlingford last year as Emily’s Dad, Quentin Ryder, was appointed the new harbour master in Kinsale.

“People came up to us outside and said all the cars on Level One were gone,” Emily said.

Eddie Hogan O’Connell, a teacher at St Anthony’s Boys National School in Ballinlough, Cork, had popped down to pick up a takeaway in Douglas before calling to Tescos for wine. He had parked his car, which contained his passport and driving licence, on Level One.

“It was around 6.45pm,” he said.

I came up the travelator to Level One of the car-park. I could see a car on fire in the middle row. I heard a few bangs — I thought it was probably the tyres and maybe the engine. Unfortunately it had a domino effect.

Mr Hogan O’Connell said the staff in the shopping centre “did a great job of getting everyone out quickly”.

“People were being asked to leave their shopping at the top of the travelator. The smoke had escalated big time at that stage.”

Mr Hogan O’Connell, said a friend of his was in Marcello’s restaurant in Douglas at the time and they too were evacuated because of the smoke.

He said he had heard a rumour that the car was already on fire when it got to the top of the ramp on the way into the shopping centre, but that was merely speculation.

He said he would be surprised if any of the cars on Level One withstood the blaze. He expressed concern that the heat generated by multiple cars on fire could have also caused damage to Level Two.

Mr Hogan O’Connell said he was relieved no one was injured. His main concern was the loss of his passport as he travels a lot in his capacity as a referee for the Irish Rugby Football Union where he is involved with the PRO14.

Another woman whose car was trapped on Level One was in tears as her twin sons’ graduation suits were in her car.

Garda investigations into the cause of the fire are continuing.

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