Millions to repair fire-hit centre

By Liz HearnshawTHE bill to repair a leisure centre that was badly damaged by a major blaze will run into millions of poundsEngineers were able yesterday to gain access to Bury St Edmunds Leisure Centre following Monday's fire and described the damage to the building's roof as “very extensive”.

By Liz Hearnshaw

THE bill to repair a leisure centre that was badly damaged by a major blaze will run into millions of pounds

Engineers were able yesterday to gain access to Bury St Edmunds Leisure Centre following Monday's fire and described the damage to the building's roof as “very extensive”.

Council officials - who had already spent about £1million on the centre and planned to pump millions more into improvement work - said “all options are open” regarding the repair programme, with a complete refurbishment possible if the interior of the building needs gutting.

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Terry Clements, portfolio holder for leisure and sport on St Edmundsbury Borough Council, which owns the leisure centre, said: “There is very extensive damage on site and obviously we need engineers to have a closer look at it before we decide what we are going to do next.

“It is easy for people to look on the black side, but like everything in St Edmundsbury, we are going to treat this as an opportunity.”

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He added: “We have to take a long-term view on this and discuss things such as if we had really got the facilities we wanted there anyway. The whole of the inside may need gutting and I do not believe any option will be closed to us.

”Bury St Edmunds is still growing and we are going to need a better sports centre. Now we could end up with a hi-tech one which would probably be more in keeping with today's needs.”

The fire broke out in the roof area at about 4.30pm on Monday when between 40 and 50 men, women and children were using the centre.

The building was evacuated and within minutes, plumes of thick, black smoke were billowing from the roof, while a series of explosions were heard across the town.

At its height, 10 crews and about 60 firefighters from across the county were drafted in to tackle the blaze and fought against strong winds to quickly bring the flames under control.

Relief crews remained on site throughout Monday night and until about 2pm yesterday to monitor the building.

Mike Dawson, the council's corporate director for community, said: “The damage is very extensive, but it will be some time before a detailed assessment is carried out and we know what is needed to put it right.

“It was very upsetting to see the damage, but the main thing to come out of this was that nobody was hurt.

“We are still looking at the structure of the building and while parts appear to be quite good, other areas clearly have structural concerns.

“But all options are open and we will be giving some thought to how we will bring the centre back into operation for the people of St Edmundsbury as fast as we can.”

Mr Dawson said limited use of the athletics track and all-weather pitch next to the centre would begin today, while contingency plans would be drawn up to give the public access to sports facilities while the building is shut.

“We are frantically working to establish a range of alternative activities which people can access in different premises in Bury and some of the rural areas to make sure people do not lose out on leisure activities they can partake in,” he added.

“We are very keen to keep the services running to make sure we offer plenty of opportunities for customers to take alternative ways of getting exercise.”

The cause of the blaze is still being investigation and Suffolk Deputy Chief Fire Officer Ken Seager praised the actions of firefighters for preventing further damage to the leisure centre.

“The Bury crews intervened very quickly and we had some degree of good fortune and were able to stop the fire before it spread through the roof and into the building itself,” he said.

“But the wind was particularly problematic, blowing the fire right across the building, which added to its spread and caused the flames from the plant room to lick across the flat surface of the roof and set fire to it in some places.”

Mr Seager said there was “considerable damage” inside the leisure centre, caused by the water used to fight the flames, while some areas of the roof had also been badly affected.

“But the council has still got a building which, after it has been dried up and patched up, will be useable - which is a cause for celebration as this could have had a different outcome,” he added.

“We would also like to praise the actions of staff on site at the time of the fire. Their very prompt actions led the people inside to safety.

“At no time were they put in any danger whatsoever and this was a model example of how a public building should be evacuated promptly and effectively.”

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