Massive blaze leaves dozens homeless

NEW PICTURES AN INVESTIGATION is under way into a massive blaze which ripped through a complex of flats in an Essex village, leaving dozens of people homeless.

Elliot Furniss

AN INVESTIGATION is under way into a massive blaze which ripped through a complex of flats in an Essex village, leaving dozens of people homeless.

The 12 flats in a converted stable and coach house in Piccotts Lane, Great Saling, near Braintree, were completely gutted by the flames, which started at about 10pm on Tuesday night.

As 11 fire crews tackled the flames, residents gathered at a nearby pub to seek refuge and come to terms with the devastation.

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The fire was under control by 1.45am yesterday morning, although crews remained on the scene throughout the night.

Speaking as he surveyed the damage yesterday, resident Johnny Breadman, 39, said he was just relieved that he had been persuaded to go for a drink with a friend rather than have an early night, as he had planned.

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He said: “If I hadn't gone out I might not be here today. It's unbelievable really, everyone is just in shock.”

He also thanked the woman who owns the property, Amanda Ratcliff, who was “fantastic” as she helped organise the residents and provide them with shelter.

He said: “She was like a general - brilliant.”

Another resident named Paul moved in just a month ago and said he had been taking a shower in a neighbouring flat as his was out of action but returned home to find his fire alarm going off and a strong smell of smoke.

He said: “I just raised the alarm because I came back and saw it first. I went banging on doors and got on the phone to call the fire brigade.

“I went back inside and grabbed a bag of bits and within about 10 minutes the fire had taken hold.”

He too praised the actions of the landlady and said there was a real community spirit throughout the night as neighbours rallied round to help out and the fire crews fought back the flames to stop them from spreading.

He added: “The whole village chipped in, we couldn't have got through it without them. It was unbelievable - some of the families have lost everything because they've been here longer than I have.”

Mandy Hart, who runs the White Hart Inn just across the road from the flats, said it had been “quite a night” for all in the village.

She said: “We were out for a meal but when we got back we stayed open for the locals until about 3am. It was roaring when we got here.

“They sat around having drinks until everyone was distributed to their right places. They lady who owns the property managed to put them all up or they went to their relatives.”

Braintree Group Commander Bill McKenzie, the fire investigation officer for the incident, said it was too early to establish the cause of the blaze.

He said: “We have an engineer from the local authority here who is assessing the stability of the structure and we have determined that we need to sure the place up before we can continue our investigation.”

The building, built in the 1830s, was originally used as a stable but later converted into a wedding venue. The site, in the grounds of Saling Grove, was turned into flats a few years ago.

Yesterday it had been reduced to little more than a shell by the fierce flames that had raged late into the night.

Crews from Wethersfield, Braintree, Thaxted, Dunmow, Colchester, Halstead, Coggeshall and Chelmsford were all called to the scene during the operation.

The flames were quick to take hold and by 11.30pm the whole structure was totally on fire. Initially, two crews were sent to the blaze but as it grew more crews were dispatched.

Firefighters used an aerial ladder platform to get water onto the building from above and efforts were made to ensure that 7,000 litres of heating oil and an LPG container were not in danger of catching light.

The joint fire and police investigation is ongoing.

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