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Tower block evacuated

PUBLISHED: 14:38 20 August 2001 | UPDATED: 10:26 03 March 2010

FIRE investigators have refused to rule out arson as the cause of a ferocious blaze at an Ipswich block of flats which led to seven people receiving hospital treatment.

FIRE investigators have refused to rule out arson as the cause of a ferocious blaze at an Ipswich block of flats which led to seven people receiving hospital treatment.

And one of the men who led the fire crews as they battled to put out the flames today described the inferno in a flat on the seventh floor as "just like an oven."

Forensic experts and police investigators are continuing their inquiries following the fire at St Francis Court just after 12.30am today. It is the sixth fire in five years that has occurred on the block – and the third on the seventh floor.

The building was completely evacuated and at the height of the blaze up to 70 fire fighters were called into to deal with the incident. They came from Ipswich, Felixstowe, Woodbridge, Holbrook, Hadleigh, Nayland and Needham Market. They were also forced to deal with flashover fires – a number of mini explosions that occur when carbon based materials get too hot.

Eight fire fighters at a time had to don breathing apparatus to deal with the smoke and flames and rescue people from the fire stricken building. They were permanently swapping duties as the flames became too hot to deal with and they were forced back from the seat of the blaze.

In all 12 fire engines were summoned to the scene including the turntable ladder and the brigade's forward control vehicle.

A total of 23 people were helped from the tower block by the crews. Seven of the residents, thought to be occupants on the seventh floor, were taken to Ipswich Hospital, in Heath Road, and treated for smoke inhalation. A further 16 were treated on the scene by ambulance crews.

Nobody was in the flat at the time of the fire although it is known to be occupied.

Assistant Divisional Officer Karl Rolfe said that the construction of the flats themselves made fighting the blaze difficult.

"The flats are made out of concrete because they have to be fire resistant," he said.

"The advantage of this is that it takes longer for the fire to spread, but it also means it can be just like an oven. The fire fighters wearing breathing apparatus had to be swapped round on a constant basis because the conditions were so arduous."

He added: "At this stage it does appear that the fire could have been started deliberately. An investigation is underway and it could be suspicious. I would not rule it out at the moment."

He also confirmed that no one suffered burns or serious injury at the scene but that fire crews helped treat people on the scene for shock and smoke inhalation.

It is still unclear how the blaze started but an explosion was heard by one of the residents as the flames ripped through the flat.

Leading the operation at the scene was Divisional Officer Eddie Meelan.

He said: "We walked out some 20 people from floors seven, eight and nine. Some of them were taken to Heath Road Hospital with smoke inhalation and others were treated on the site by ambulance."

Harry Heimonen >>>> lives on the sixth floor almost directly below the fire damaged flat.

The 41-year-old, who has been a resident at St Francis Court since April, was just about to go to bed when he was disturbed by the commotion.

"I heard this explosion and thought it might have been a car," he said.

"I took a look outside my window and saw smoke coming from the flat above.

"Everything seemed to happen very quickly as the fire brigade arrived on the scene … they were very quick to get here.

"I was able to walk out of the building like many of the other people living here but was able to come back later on when we were allowed inside."

Many of the residents who got out of the block in Franciscan Way were able to put on some clothes as they waited outside while the fire crews tackled the blaze and cleared everyone out of the building. Some though still had their night clothes on.

One of those was Tracy Apps >>who was in her dressing gown.

The 33-year-old, who lives on the fourth floor, heard the alarms going off and quickly evacuated her flat.

She said: "I smelt the smoke and decided I better get out. Nobody told us what was going on and we have no idea how the fire started."

She was with a group of about a dozen other residents waiting outside the building for the all clear to be given to return.

That included Tony Squirrell, >> 26, who also lives on the fourth floor.

He had just gone to sleep when he was woken by the fire alarms.

He said: "I also smelt the smoke and heard someone knocking on my door shouting "get out" … so I did."

Martin Westfall, >>18, heard people shouting "Fire" which alerted him.

The teenager was watching television when the fire started.

He said: "I heard the shouts, got out and ran down the stairs. As I ran down I noticed there was a lot of smoke."

James Farbrother, >>> 17, was on the telephone in his flat on the fifth floor when the fire started.

He said: "I heard the alarms, quickly put the phone down and got out. By that time the fire brigade had arrived and I was being told to leave the building."

Ruth and Warren Rose >> were in a flat above the fire on the eighth floor.

She was just dozing off when the fire broke out.

The 41-year-old said: "I heard this banging on the door and I thought it was being kicked in. I went to open it and there was this fireman telling me to get out."

Mr Rose, also quickly evacuated the building as the fire fighters tackled the blaze below.

But he said: "Nobody has told us what is going on and we have no idea how the fire started."

When the all clear was given to go back into the building just before 3am many returned to their flats … except those on the seventh floor as it was sealed off.

In such an emergency like this morning fire crews not involved directly in extinguishing the blaze would be called in to cover the county.

Due to all Ipswich crews being at St Francis Court appliances from the west of the county, such as Bury St Edmunds and Newmarket, were contacted by Suffolk fire control and put on stand by to cover.

Ipswich Borough Council set in motion an emergency procedures to relocate anyone who needed overnight accommodation.

Sue Wythe, >> principal policy officer for housing at the council, was on the scene and said that plans had been made for people to go to Maidenhall Sports Centre or West Villa in Woodbridge Road.

However, it appeared that nobody took up the offer and returned to their homes.

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