Party time for holiday village heroes

FLAMES of a different kind were leaping at Center Parcs, as a host of emergency service workers returned to the Suffolk holiday village.A month ago, there were frantic scenes as more than 50 fire crews battled to contain one of Suffolk's biggest ever blazes, which saw 3,500 holidaymakers evacuated.

By Tracey Sparling

FLAMES of a different kind were leaping at Center Parcs, as a host of emergency service workers returned to the Suffolk holiday village.

Seven weeks ago, there were frantic scenes as more than 50 fire crews battled to contain one of Suffolk's biggest ever blazes, which saw 3,500 holidaymakers evacuated.

It started when building contractors set fire to the roof, and ended by devastating the main plaza so completely that the popular site had to close.

But on Saturday, the only charred smell hanging in the air was from the barbecue grills – and the only intense heat the firefighters had to face, was the sizzling burgers.

Suffolk workers and their families were among 450 heroes invited back for a thank you picnic by Center Parcs, which saw pony rides and bouncy castles for the children, live music, golf and archery to try.

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The huge party saw several hundred people reunited with familiar faces who worked alongside them during the fire of April 4.

It brought back memories of when the drama demanded all hands to the pumps, and the toil was long and heavy work punctuated by welcome refreshment breaks.

Guests included firefighters from Suffolk, Essex, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, Mildenhall police, Bury St Edmunds ambulance service, Forest Heath District Council, Elveden Estate and the Anglia Division of the Salvation Army. Firefighters from every watch at Ipswich had helped at the scene.

Many were delighted at the gesture, saying there is often little chance to hear such thanks in a world where they do their job then head for the next challenge.

Suffolk fire chief Malcolm Alcock was at the weekend party with his wife Lynne.

He said: "It was the largest fire in the county for many years. I've been in Suffolk for 17 years and it was certainly the largest deployment I have ever made.

"At one stage, as crews were changing shifts, we had 53 on scene. When you consider there are 47 vehicles in Suffolk, it shows what pressure there was."

He said his family had holidayed at Center Parcs in the past.

He added it was great to be thanked in the form of a party, and said: "I've never known anything like this before – sometimes we get invited to re-openings, but this is very unusual."

Stowmarket firefighter Carl Theobald arrived at 11am on the day of the fire, worked for ten hours and then – like many others – started his next shift straight away.

He was at the picnic with girlfriend Jessica Farnsworth.

He battled against the flames at the height of the fire, and said: "We were at the back of the indoor sports hall area, and the flames were coming towards us, so we were working to try and protect the building and stop it spreading.

"Center Parcs looked after us superbly on the day and I'd have been happy with that, so it's brilliant to have a party too."

Colleague Andy Rose from Elmswell fire station, said: "We were on our knees by the end of the shift, but then we started the next one straight away."

He attended with wife Lorraine and son Sean, a fire cadet set to follow in his father's footsteps.

Mr Rose said: "This is a really nice gesture and it has enabled us all to get together again.

"We were pumping from the big lake to supply the main pumps for firefighting. It was a hard slog but Center Parcs tried to look after us really well with refreshments.

"It was quite sad to see so many peoples' holidays spoiled, but having been here, we will definitely come on holiday in the future."

Ipswich firefighter John Roderick attended with family, to represent his colleagues, some of whom were working night shifts so were unable to be at the party.

He was among the many drafted in to dampen down the site, after the main fire had been extinguished.

Gary Smith, station officer from Ipswich fire headquarters in Colchester Road, had been in charge of getting all the firefighting equipment returned to different fire stations, the day after the blaze.

He arrived at the picnic with wife Carole , and sons Casey, 17, and Kyle, 14.

He said: "It's good to see people again. Center Parcs even gave us meals at the country club while we were here, and the staff were excellent."

Salvation Army volunteers from Stowmarket also jumped into action, to supply sandwiches for the workers.

Tesco donated 35 loaves of bread in the first phase of the operation, and a whole team of Salvation Army volunteers filled the sandwiches.

Mike Baker, emergency response co-ordinator said: "We provide refreshments to the emergency services, and are on call for major incidents."

The team has been to four incidents this year – the last major one in Ipswich was the Burtons biscuit factory near the docks – and attended 39 in the past two years.

Mr Baker said: "We often get calls in the middle of the night, when nobody is around, so it is unusual to get thanks. This party is a nice gesture."

Colleague Dave Morgan said: "The first phase saw food sent out, then we went back again to get more.

"We called in a crew at Stowmarket fire station to get reinforcements and fill the sandwiches."

The Stowmarket branch were working from car boots, but have just been awarded funding for a £40,000 vehicle.

The cost of the damage to the site, ran into millions of pounds but the Evening Star can today reveal a planning application full of renovation proposals is due to be considered this week .

The complex will open again next Spring.

The managing director of Center Parcs UK, Martin Dalby, said on Saturday: "We should hear next week whether we have got planning permission. Time has moved on since Center Parcs was built, so this gives us a chance to rebuild the plaza even better than it was before.

"The new development will have all the original features such as restaurants, shops and leisure facilities, but it will look a little bit different. We are very excited about it.

"The staff have also been looking forward to this party. It is a positive thing and it is nice to be serving guests again for the first time in a few weeks.

"We want to say a big thank you to all the people who helped and supported us."