One of Belfast most iconic buildings, commonly known as ‘the Bank Buildings’ at Castle Street, now operating as a Primark store, faces an uncertain future after being gutted by a fire which started at approximately 11.00 a.m. this morning.
According to the BBC:
About 100 firefighters are at the scene and the roof and some floors have collapsed
There are no reports of any injuries and it is not yet clear how the fire started.
The fire service said the blaze started on the fifth floor or the roof and it expects firefighters to be tackling the blaze well into Tuesday evening.
Firefighters are piecing together 1km of hose to bring water from the River Lagan to the scene of the fire.
“We certainly can’t guarantee the structural integrity of the building at this time,” said Assistant Chief Fire Officer Michael Graham.
“Our expectation is that the internal floors will collapse where the fire has been burning at its greatest intensity.
“We actually hope that might help the overall structure.”
A police officer at the scene told BBC News NI earlier on Tuesday that structural engineers had assessed the building and said it was “at risk of imminent collapse”.
Police are advising people to avoid Castle Street and Royal Avenue.
Clothing giant Primark confirmed that the building was safely evacuated.
It is believed more than 350 people work in the store.
Royal Avenue has been cordoned off and pieces of debris have fallen from the side of the historic building.
Mr Graham said it had been “an intense six hours” for firefighters.
“The priority for us was to stop any fire spreading to any other building and keep our firefighters and the community safe,” he added.
“We feel we’ve achieved all of those things.
The clothing and homeware chain was undergoing a major refurbishment.
It was being extended along Castle Street in a project costing an estimated £30m.
The building itself has a long and somewhat chequered history. Again as reported by the BBC:
A blaze at Belfast’s flagship Primark store is not the first incident of its kind at the Royal Avenue premises.
From public executions to fires, the Grade B1 listed five-storey Bank Buildings has a long and gruesome history.
The Bank Buildings was designed by Sir Robert Taylor and erected by Waddell Cunningham in 1785.
The original bank opened in 1787 as The Bank of the Four Johns, named after the four founders who shared a Christian name.
After the bank collapsed it was used as the residence of the Bishop of Down and Connor, the Rev Dr William Dickson.
In 1805 the building was converted into a shop.
The last public execution was carried out on the building’s doorstep in 1816.
In 1853, a wholesale drapery firm was founded at the site, which became a commercial department store.
About 50 years later the new Bank Buildings was designed by WH Lynn.
Until 1961 only the ground and first floors were used as a retail store, with the remainder of the building taken up by the company’s wholesale warehouse.
In 1969 the shares of William Robertson, Henry Hawkins, JC Ledlie and Robert Ferguson, who founded the drapery firm, were sold to the House of Fraser group.
Robertson, Ledlie, Ferguson and Company continued to run the shop as a subsidiary company but four years later Boots acquired the Bank Buildings when it took over House of Fraser.
Three bombs exploded in the Bank Buildings in 1975. A huge fire broke out shortly afterwards and damaged parts of it.
In 1979 the Bank Buildings were taken over by Dublin-based group Primark.
Within 18 months the store had been totally refurbished and the exterior restored to its 1903 glory.
Watch the BBC Newsline footage here:
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