The Great Fire of 1945
May 7, 2000
As people jumped up in the streets on Mashramani, they probably did not realize that in addition to being the thirtieth anniversary of Guyana's advent to republican status, the day also marked the fifty-fifth anniversary of possibly the most destructive fire in Georgetown's history.
On February 23, 1945, the Great Fire, as it came to be known, devastated the commercial heart of the capital, and consumed a host of historical and architectural gems which had given the city its aesthetic flair. In addition, it laid waste the RA&CS building and its unique collection of books and papers pertaining to the past of this country.
Beginning in what was then Bookers Drug Store, the fire raged virtually unimpeded for five hours, incinerating 23 buildings, damaging seven others, and scorching several more.
The fire spreads
The Daily Chronicle, whose home in Main Street adjacent to Bookers Drug Store miraculously escaped the flames, described the progress of the flames in the following terms in its report of Saturday, February 24:
"Fed by a strong northeasterly wind the fire reached its peak around five p.m. with thick black smoke billowing thousands of feet up, and exploding chemical containers sending up sheets of flame in all directions.
"Starting in the second storey [of Bookers Drug Store] the flames quickly enveloped the four-storey building and a crowd of thousands watched in awe as a wall of fire rolled across the street to the Assembly Rooms. Against this raging inferno firemen fought a losing battle, and in quick succession Bookers Garage, the District Administration Office and the G.P.O. were engulfed.
"Fire hoses looked like water pistols as they played feeble jets against this mass of burning buildings, which made the sun glow red before it was blotted out by an overhanging curtain of smoke.
"Leaping from building to building, the fire assumed alarming proportions, sweeping two blocks to Robb Street and same distance west to Water Street, menacing the entire business area. Five concrete and metal buildings saved Georgetown from a greater catastrophe. As the fire spread north from the Assembly Rooms the Hand-in-Hand first formed the break, and the Brigade was able to confine the fire to that square. Its destructive path along Hincks Street through the G.P.O. and the "Daily Agosy" was blocked by the B.G. & Trinidad Mutual building. The fire continued down Robb Street to the Royal Bank where the steel shutters and brick walls again halted its progress.
"Sweeping in an arc along the north side of Company Path and on both sides of Water Street, it razed the Reading Rooms, Geddes Grant Ltd., the 5 & 10 Cents Store, Sandbach Parker's, and here Barclays Bank stopped it. While both sides of Water Street burned, the two Banks offered the Brigade an opportunity for the first time, of getting control of the conflagration. Its course west along Church Street was checked by the metal frame of the Stone Depot..."
Commission of Enquiry
Owing to the size of the fire and the unusual extent of the losses, the Governor in Council set up a Commission of Enquiry. It consisted of one man - S.L. Van B. Stafford - who held hearings at the Town Hall. His findings were conclusive, despite the efforts of some witnesses, he said, to "cloud the issue."
Bookers Drug Store, on the corner of Church and Main Streets, where Guyana Stores now stands, was more than just a retail outlet; it was a factory manufacturing Limacol and various other products which had an alcohol base. Stored on the premises, therefore, were over a thousand gallons of spirits, much of it 68 over proof. Even under the best of conditions, said Stafford, the process of manufacture would have produced a fair quantity of alcohol vapour.
Origins of fire
At around 2:30 pm on the fateful afternoon, a consignment of eight drums of alcohol arrived at the factory. They were taken up by lift to the Compounding floor, and four of them were rolled into the Limacol room. One of these was placed under a vat on a platform into which the alcohol was to be pumped. A man named Ivan Morris, according to the findings, did not couple the two portions of the alcohol delivery pipe properly before applying the pressure tube to the drums, a mistake for which he was to pay with his life.
According to evidence tendered by Oscar Braithwaite, who was working with Morris in the Limacol room, when the air pressure tube was applied, the alcohol was blown out of the short pipe of the drum into the air, hitting the ceiling 16 feet up, and rebounding and wetting Morris. They had all laughed, he said, because that had never happened before. The alcohol went on spouting.
That in itself, however, was not sufficient to start a fire. The spark was supplied by a mechanic named Desmond Nightengale, who was working with a blow lamp soldering limacol tanks in a small west room leading off from where the vats were stored and where Morris and others were working. Stafford found that the lamp ignited some spray or vapour from the alcohol. "The flame," he said, "flashed back over all the space in which there was vapour and in turn ignited the alcohol on Morris's clothing and the drum of alcohol on which he was working."
The three persons whom the Commissioner held directly responsible through their negligence for the fire were Morris, Nightengale and Assistant Manager I.G. Carpenter, who had permitted a blow lamp to be used in the little room - "a dangerous operation in a dangerous place in a factory carrying on what I consider a dangerous trade."
Flouting the bye-laws
Given the amount of alcohol in one form or another stored on the premises, which was highly inflammable, it was no surprise, said Stafford's report, "that the Drug Stores buildings were doomed from the very moment of the outbreak."
Bookers was castigated on other counts as well. Along with the City Engineer's Department the company had ignored the relevant building bye-laws by making additions to the structure from time to time, until by 1945 "a factory more dangerous to the employees within it would have been hard to find." In 1942, the Town Council itself was at fault by overriding a decision of the City Engineer who had for once refused permission for yet another extension.
Owing to a lack of inspection, as required by law, two tumbler switches had been illegally installed on the Compounding floor in close proximity to vats where alcohol vapour was always present, constituting yet another safety hazard. A witness at the enquiry, Braithwaite, was to maintain that one of the switches had sparked, following which there was a blue flame. Stafford appears to have discounted this evidence in his conclusions, dismissing also Nightengale's claim that he had finished the soldering before the outbreak of the fire. He deemed the latter a most unreliable witness, who had contradicted himself many times.
The flames spread from the Drug Store with remarkable rapidity, fanned by a strong north-easterly wind. Stafford also found that despite the good work done by the fire brigade, it lacked three crucial pieces of equipment in its fight that day. Its hoses could not reach the taller buildings in this sector of the city because it did not have a turn-table engine from which to operate the jets.
It had no chemical fire-fighting apparatus in addition to no foamite extinguisher which was large enough for the task at hand, a distinct handicap when confronted with an alcohol fuelled fire such as that at Bookers.
Thirdly, it had no proper apparatus for firing demolition charges of explosive. The Commission found that had a proper blaster been to hand in the early stages of the fire, the timely demolition of some buildings would have saved many more. Later in the evening of the 23rd, some demolition had been eventually carried out, which was considered to have played a role in arresting the further progress of the conflagration.
As it was, the brigade had to fight the huge blaze with only two fire engines and three trailer pumps, along with two fire floats on the river.
Amid such a litany of disasters one or two things were nevertheless done right. The report said that the policing work was of a high standard, and that there was very little looting.
Report on evidence given by Olga Winter to the Commission
"... A slight noise attracted her attention and, looking round, she saw Morris holding a small piece of pipe to the drum... "When she looked around she saw alcohol gushing upwards from the drum to about as high as the ceiling of the room. Morris was still in the same (crouching) position and the alcohol was wetting him.
"Next thing she saw was the alcohol 'turning into a blue flame' in mid-air above Morris and descending on to him.
"The drum was to her rear and left, about ten feet away from her, and somewhat closer to the door of the little room. The flame went straight up into the air and Morris, in his crouching position, was facing towards her with the drum in front of him and between the two of them.
"She did not herself speak to Morris and remembered no one calling out to him before he caught fire. After he had caught fire he ran out of the room - alone. The whole place caught and she also ran from the room..."
Report on evidence given to the Commission of Enquiry by J A Adamson, General Manager of Bookers Drug Stores
"It was a little after 3.30 p.m. that he heard a "boom" - a sound which reminded him of a full drum falling... Listening for a second or two, he heard screams and, opening the side door of his office, he ran towards the Compounding Department. Just as he got to the doorway giving access to the new building from the old, Ivan Morris appeared before him enveloped in flames. Morris was running and he dived towards him in an attempt to throw him down but Morris shoved him away saying, 'leave me alone, chief.' He fell back against the wall and Morris ran down into the yard.
"Recovering his balance he raced after Morris who turned into the Dispensary Department on the ground floor of the old building, ran north through there and out through the passage on to the Main Street pavement. There were a number of clerks in the Dispensary and he shouted to them, 'look after that boy.'
"... He then ran straight through the Compounding Department and turned into the Limacol Room where he saw a drum of alcohol on the floor burning from the bung and from its two heads...
"He called for fire extinguishers, two of which were kept nearby. He turned to get one himself and had moved away 6 feet when he heard a puff.
"He dashed back to see what that was and saw that the flames had entered a pipe which was hanging over the drum from the Limacol vat. He was still looking at this when the vat nearer him burst into flames.
"As he got out of the room about six people appeared with extinguishers, and, looking back into the room he saw that the flames were spreading eastward along the floor, the joints of the blazing drum having evidently melted in the interim.
"This prevented entry into the room to fight the fire and, as he was afraid that the burning vat would burst and set more people on fire, he gave the general order to 'leave the premises... '"