Leisure centre hit by second blaze

By Benedict O'ConnorA LEISURE centre undergoing a £1million refurbishment scheme has been devastated by a huge blaze for the second time in its history.

By Benedict O'Connor

A LEISURE centre undergoing a £1million refurbishment scheme has been devastated by a huge blaze for the second time in its history.

Fire alarms sounded at Bury St Edmunds Leisure Centre at about 4.30pm yesterday and within minutes clouds of thick, black smoke were billowing out from the roof.

As the blaze took hold on the roof and the plumes of smoke were seen across the town, a series of small explosions shook through the building.

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The fire struck just as young families were arriving for an evening's sport shortly after the end of the school day.

Leisure centre staff quickly shut the building and moved out 40 men, women and children who were using the centre - including four or five people who had been using the small pool and were still clad in their swimming costumes.

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The high wind soon whipped the fire across the rooftop, causing part of the structure to cave in on the empty pool below.

Ten fire crews and about 60 firefighters from across the county were sent to the scene and brought the blaze under control within about 40 minutes - avoiding a repeat of the events of March 1980 when the building was almost completely destroyed in arson attack.

Leisure centre manager, Simon Ginders-Coxshall, said he had discovered the fire after being alerted by the alarms.

“I went up towards the roof and there was thick, black smoke coming towards me and as I looked across the roof I saw flames - you couldn't see half of the roof there was so much smoke,” he added.

“We followed the evacuation procedures immediately as everyone was already assembled at the fire exits, we just had to make sure they were clear and everyone got out safely.”

It was a sight all too familiar to Adi Linton, who was just walking on to the badminton court with his daughter, Amy, and their friends, Pascal and Rosalie, when the alarm was raised as he had also turned up to play squash on the morning of the 1980 blaze.

“It's unbelievable, twice this place has burnt down and I've been here both times,” he said.

“We had just booked a court when the manager came through to tell us to leave. Everyone got out very quickly and calmly, there was no panic and the main thing is everyone is safe, although I'm beginning to think I'm jinxed.”

The main swimming pool has been closed to the public during refurbishment works concentrated on the pool plant room on the roof, where the fire appeared to have started.

Speaking at the scene, Suffolk Chief Fire Officer Malcolm Alcock said: “It's quite a significant blaze and while it was contained quite quickly, there was a difficult concentration of fire in the pool plant room which is difficult to get at.

“Obviously, no investigation has taken place and it's therefore too early to say how the fire started.”

Mr Alcock added although the bitumen and felt roof had been badly damaged, the structure of the building appeared to be sound and the fire had been mainly concentrated on the roof and pool plant room.

Terry Clements, portfolio holder for leisure and sport for St Edmundsbury Borough Council, which owns the building and is behind the £1m refurbishment scheme, said: “It is just devastating and a very sad day for Bury St Edmunds and the entire borough.

“We are confident the appropriate safety measures were in place and that staff reacted well to the fire and that all health and safety measures were covered.

“Two sweeps were made of the building to ensure everything was clear. These are things we have to look at in the cold light of day.”

He added: “The leisure centre is crucial for the health of residents in St Edmundsbury and we were planning to pump millions into improving the facilities. This will now have to be put on hold.

“I just hope something good can come out of this disaster and we must now build for the future - that is the most important thing.”

The leisure centre pool has been closed since March for improvements to heating and lighting and the poolside viewing area and had been due to reopen in August.

But in July loose tiles in the pool floor were discovered, prompting the council to announce that work was three months behind schedule.

The council has lost an estimated £400,000 in income from the leisure centre during the works, but Mr Clements said that lost income would not be made up through council tax charges.


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