Fire officers described the damage to Douglas Village Shopping Centre as “a major structural failure” as plans for partial demolition were announced.
Victor Shine, Cork City Fire Brigade second officer, said the heat was so extreme during the weekend fire that steel support beams in the area most affected had failed.
“There was extremely substantial structural failure in the building, especially around the area where the fire was,” said Mr Shine.
There was no good news for traders at the centre with any hope of a speedy return to business dashed by an announcement that demolition work would first have to take place. Management said the “intense nature of the fire” had compromised the structural integrity of a portion of the building, the section in level one of the multistorey car park where the fire broke out, and it would have to be demolished.
“Our team of consultants has instructed us that access to the centre will not be safe until demolition is complete.
“We hope to start the process next week,” the statement said. There was no timeline for completion of the demolition phase as “we do not yet know the full scope”, the statement said.
The statement said the process of removing customer and staff cars will get under way tomorrow and that they will be in contact with all car owners.
Construction company PJ Hegarty and Sons will lift the cars from the open section on level one by crane, rather than from the rooftop as was initially envisaged.
It is then hoped to lower them into a nearby compound for collection by owners, who will have to take responsibility for having them checked out, according to centre manager Bartosz Mieszala.
A car owner who spoke to the Irish Examiner expressed concern about the condition of her car given that there was meat and fish in the boot since the weekend.
Cork City Council lord mayor John Sheehan said the shopping centre was “a vital part of the community in Douglas, but the big emphasis is that no one was hurt”. Council CEO Ann Doherty said it was important to emphasise that Douglas remains open for business.
Mr Sheehan said the fire service had “done tremendous work in preventing loss of life”, praise echoed by centre owner Clayton Love, who said there would be “no shortcuts” in the efforts to reopen the centre.
Asked about insurance cover, Mr Love said all tenants of the centre were obliged under the terms of their lease to carry certain insurance cover. “They’ll be checking their policies,” he said. He said the relief road running down the city-side of the centre would remain closed for now.
Mr Shine said there had been criticism of the fire service’s handling of the operation but the truth was that they had responded within five minutes to the emergency call.
He said firefighters had faced substantial challenges, including shoppers driving down the ramp against them as they sought to gain access.
He said the heat was so intense firefighters were not able to remain inside the building for more than 15 minutes at a time, at which point they were almost collapsing and had to come out, in dire need of rehydration.
“Imagine you cook your chicken at 180C. They were going into nearly 900C, enough to melt steel and aluminium,” he said.
All of the aluminium fire extinguishers in the building had melted, he said. Asked why there was no sprinkler system in the car park, Mr Shine said that was a requirement for basement car parks.
He said the fire was “technically very challenging” because of the modern design of the building, with low ramp clearance and difficulties determining before entering the building the extent of what was happening.
“Our team initially went into the control room, but the smoke came down so fast we had to move out,” he said.
Firefighting was complicated by the high fire load — the amount of combustible material in the building and the power cables running across the roof that posed the risk of electrocution.
They had pumped 200 litres of water a minute at the height of the fire, Mr Shine said. There is speculation the car that started the fire may have been an Opel Zafira, a model recalled due to fire risk. Garda investigations are ongoing.