Based on eyewitness accounts and internal fire brigade briefing documents, here’s the full account of how the Shurgard self-storage warehouse burned through from New Year’s Eve and into 2019
Photostory by DESMOND FITZGERALD
The fire was called in to the fire brigade on New Year’s Eve, December 31, at 19.47 and 10sec.
London Fire Brigade was on the scene within minutes with tenders heard arriving from Croydon, Mitcham, Norbury, and later further afield.
Aerial ladders were used soon afterwards with water being drawn from as far away as Franklin Way across the tramlines separating Ampere Way and Faraday Way slip road and the storage centre itself.
The first entry to the building’s shell was planned for Thursday, as the fire entered its fourth day. As well as the dangers of the ruined building, the wrecked warehouse was now also being treated as a crime scene.
It was planned to cut away the collapsed roof to gain entry, though it seemed likely that LFB teams will be still in attendance for some days yet to come.
One of the difficulties facing the emergency services on the night, and since, was the lack of accurate and reliable information about the contents of the self-storage warehouse, and what was fuelling the inferno. While many of the storage units were used for domestic goods which households had no space to keep, some were also used by small businesses for their products and equipment.
Without information about what flammable or potentially explosive materials might be inside, and with the public thought not to be at risk, the fire brigade command was reluctant to place any of their firefighters in jeopardy by going into the blazing building.
This fire could burn its way into the record books. This has been one of the largest fires in Croydon, reminiscent of the Bollom Paint factory fire in Elmers End in 1996 that turned the sky black and burned for several days. There was also the Robert Dyas distribution HQ fire in Imperial Way in December 1997. The company left Croydon the following year.
Shurgard is probably the biggest fire in Croydon since the night of the riots in August 2011, when the blaze at Reeves Corner could be seen for miles around.
On the night that this fire started, by 10pm there was smoke visible around East Croydon Station, though many New Year’s Eve revellers remained unaware of the major incident nearby, some assuming the smell in the air might have been caused by celebratory fireworks being set off a couple of hours too soon.
Trams continued to run past the fire for more than two hours, until the incident was escalated. As one New Year’s Eve party-goer told us: “I saw this from a tram travelling towards Croydon at 9.45.
“I could smell smoke every time the tram doors opened on the way to Croydon. By the time we reached West Croydon the air was thick with the smell of burnt metal.”
The serious complication for the Croydon tram network is the proximity of the Shurgard warehouse to the Therapia Lane depot, where most of the network’s trams are parked and serviced. This is not accessible since this stretch of the network was closed, with power switched off to trams on part of Wimbledon branch early on New Year’s Day. Since the partial closure, trams have had to be left on the track overnight, either side of the closed section.
Of the fleet of 34 trams, by Thursday, 16 trams seemed to be stuck in the depot, with just four available and working between Mitcham Junction and Wimbledon, leaving 14 for the remaining serviceable routes.
Another New Year’s Eve partygoer said, “On the way home from my night out at the closing party of The Bad Apple, I couldn’t get a tram – on the one night they should have been running overnight.”
Amid more acrid smoke in the air, even in Croydon town centre, fears that the fire at Shurgard had indeed escalated seemed to be confirmed.
“On the alternative 264 bus that was running at 5.20am, we were diverted around Lombard roundabout, which was itself host to water from a fire hydrant in the middle.
“Once I walked across the tram tracks at Therapia Lane towards home I could see the smoke billowing out of the storage centre into the sky towards Croydon.”
Curious, the party-goer decided to take a closer look and discovered how wide the cordon was thrown by the LFB, supported by the police, to take in several hundred yards from Franklin Way to Beddington Farm Road and from Miller Road to the Lombard roundabout, closing the A23 in both directions.
“I noticed that the roof of the storage centre had caved in and the metal walls had buckled in the heat, leaving just the lift-shaft and its metal doors still standing out,” they said.
It proved to be a complicated fire-fighting effort, with teams operating in relays, with fire hoses between them snaking along many adjoining roads.
Aerial platforms were tackling the blaze from above as well as fixed positions from below, in what appeared a complex operation.
Members of the LFB team explained later that they did not know what was in the building and there were concerns that it could either fall in any direction, showering hot ash and cinders, or that there might be an explosion from something that became exposed within the building.
The roof had in fact hindered the firefighters from getting at the scorching heart of the fire and it would need to be cut away.
While hundreds of customers of Shurgard are thought to have lost their possessions, others in the locality of the fire were also affected by ash, reduced water pressure and traffic gridlock. Several businesses and shops along the Purley Way, who might have anticipated a busy day’s trading on New Year’s Day, would be unable to open.
By dawn on New Year’s Day, it was becoming apparent that this fire was going to take a long time to extinguish.
The Lombard roundabout remained half closed, as well as Purley Way from there to Sainsbury’s in both directions.
The fire was still burning the next day, Wednesday January 2, and the tram network’s replacement buses were getting stuck in increasingly gridlocked traffic.
A “Mobilisation Message” from LFB at 10.42 on Wednesday January 2 shows how they managed “incident No. 181992-31122018” on a rotating basis from fire stations across London with 20 fire pumps (engines); four (Magirus ALP325) aerial platforms; three Command Units; one hose-laying unit (from Kingston) and a major water pump.
Bookers car park in Newman Road was being used as the fire brigade’s rendezvous point.
Indeed, fire engines arriving and operating in the afternoon of Wednesday included one from New Cross, two from Bromley, Heston in west London, Tooting, Purley, Sidcup, Kingston (as well as the hose layer), Hammersmith and Twickenham.
These all replaced local crews who were no doubt exhausted and with fire engines running low on fuel.
Throughout the incident the Salvation Army had provided hot drinks and hot food to the firefighters by night and day. Portable toilets were also brought in by the authorities.
On Wednesday afternoon a large mobile crane was brought in and a very brave worker from Deconstruct UK, Dangerous Structure Division, was raised in a metal cage to cut sections of the remaining roof structure with oxyacetylene equipment. This impressed even the firefighters.
By this time, Croydon Council, the gas authority, Thames Water, Tramlink officers, TfL teams, London Highways and signage contractors were all busy on the scene, as well as the management of Shurgard themselves and local television news crews.
The Mercedes dealership that sits alongside Shurgard in Purley Way and which had not long ago completed a raised car parking deck that was full of cars, was very lucky not to have been affected, or so it would seem.
The traffic continued to be gridlocked, with tempers of some drivers fraying and reports of major congestion extending to Wallington and towards Mitcham and beyond. The buses were heavily delayed with the Tramlink Replacement service down to less than walking-speed.
The A23 was gradually re-opened after the evening rush hour when it became less dangerous, easing local traffic, but with a continued busy presence of firefighters and their machinery and other equipment.
The police presence was stood down when the A23 reopened. Faraday Way remained closed into Friday, as the aerial dowsing of the fire continued into a third night with a rotation of specialist platforms and support engines with miles of hoses.
Shurgard eventually issued a holding statement on Thursday, when the police also announced that they were investigating the cause of the fire, having arrested two men, one of whom was released, the other who remains a subject of their enquiries.
Shurgard has two other warehouses nearby, at Fiveways and in South Croydon, and the nature of the blaze at Purley Way, what started it, and what fire prevention and retardant measures were available inside, are among the issues which are sure to be debated as the authorities seek to reduce the risk of such incidents in future.
“Self-storage units are generally full of items like furniture which when packed tightly provide a lot of materials to burn,” Graham Ellis, the LFB’s assistant commissioner, said, “so these incidents create large fires that burn hard for a longtime and create a lot of smoke.”
More on this story: Tram network facing indefinite disruption after Shurgard fire
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