Ipswich: Firefighters could have saved more of flame-ravaged St Michael’s Church if they had the right equipment, union boss claims

IPSWICH: As the community today mourns the tragic loss of an historic church, fire unions have told how a faulty appliance hampered efforts to quell the flames.

The Suffolk branch of the Fire Brigade Union (FBU) said more of St Michael’s church could have been saved if the right equipment had arrived on time – and they are warning that staffing changes could lead to similar disasters in the future.

Andy Vingoe, branch chairman, explained that the turntable ladder from Ipswich suffered a fault at the scene of Monday night’s fire and with Bury’s appliance out of action for servicing, crews were forced to wait for help to arrive from Essex.

He said: “The fact is the appliances didn’t arrive quickly enough.”

The turntable ladders have a 30ft reach and are used on larger-scale fires when crews cannot get close enough or are unable to access the building.

In a statement the FBU said they felt that may have been possible more of the building, in Upper Orwell Street, could have been saved if the resources worked and were there as quickly as they could be.

“It is hard to say that they could have saved 50 per cent of the church had it arrived more promptly,” said Mr Vingoe. “The church was empty and there would have been no fire alarm so we can’t tell exactly when it started.

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“It could have been burning for days, weeks or just minutes if there was an amount of accelerant used. It was only when the flames started coming through the roof that people noticed it.”

He described the blaze as one of the biggest the county has seen in the past decade, and said: “The church had been derelict but was destined to become a community centre. It was like a fairy story but now everything has gone wrong.”

The union fear they could be forced to stand by while other treasured buildings are destroyed by flames, if Suffolk County Council go ahead with plans to remove the dedicated crew for the Ipswich turntable ladder.

Under this arrangement firefighters would have to leave a fire to return to the station and crew the specialist machine.

The union said: “Fires will be allowed to develop for longer, causing more damage and increased insurance costs to businesses, local authorities and private households and increasing risk to the public and firefighters.”

Mark Hardingham, deputy chief fire officer for Suffolk, said: “When the first firefighters were sent from Ipswich to the incident at St Michael’s Church, the fire was already through the roof of the building and quickly spread to the whole of the church.

“The mechanical breakdown did not alter the outcome of the incident.

“Suffolk continues to be one of the safest counties when it comes to fires. The service is currently consulting on its future plans – one of which is to maintain the aerial appliance at Ipswich but change the way it is crewed. The changes to the crewing arrangements will not alter the way the appliances are used.”

Owner of the church, Muhammad Manwar Ali, chief executive of Jimas, said he believes crews did all they could to save the church that he bought using his own life savings.

The fire is being treated as a suspected arson attack and police are continuing to scour CCTV footage recorded on the night in the hope of identifying any possible suspects. They are appealing for anyone with information to contact them on 01473 613500.

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