ONE OF over 50 backpackers who fled from a hostel as a massive fire ripped through the building in Inverness has described being “lucky to be alive” after initially treating the alarm as a joke.
Fifty-one guests and three staff at the city centre Eastgate Backbackers’ hostel miraculously escaped unhurt when the blaze broke out and quickly spready over three storeys shortly after 5am.
A total of 35 firefighters rushed to the scene and started an immediate evacuation of the property on Inverness’ High Street.
David Leishman, the Highlands and Islands group manager of the new Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, said: “There was a little bit of panic from those leaving the building, but we were very quickly able to enable everyone to exit the premises safely.”
Backpacker Rene Carrie, from Bavaria in Germany, said afterwards: “I was asleep when I woke up with a fire alarm.
“At first I thought it was a bad joke. Then I saw the fire and it was not a joke, it was real. Of course, I am lucky to be alive.
“It was good luck that I had packed my bag for today as I was able to take my bag with all my stuff.
“But there are people who are without shoes and clothes, and I gave a girl some of my clothes.”
Thomas Moulins, of Bordeaux, France, said: “I was staying at the hostel for just last night. We were woken up after 5am by a fire alarm and we just went out.
“At first we thought it was an exercise, but when we got out we saw the fire. It was quite impressive. It was my first fire.
“I was not afraid, it was first a little fire, then when we got outside it was bigger.
“Some people have lost their bags, their passports and their money. I am lucky as I have my passport, my money and my fags.”
The emergency was raised when fire alarms sounded at 5.13am, with witnesses saying the blaze began upstairs – where it is believed the kitchen was located – before spreading downwards.
Flames and smoke could be seen from miles around the Highland capital and the smell of smoke spread throughout the city centre.
Police said they were not currently treating the fire as suspicious, but stressed investigations were still ongoing.
All those safely evacuated were taken to the Spectrum Centre run by Highland Council, where they were being interviewed by police throughout the day.
Chief Inspector Graeme Murdoch, Area Commander for Inverness, said: “Nothing about the circumstance at the moment suggest there are suspicious circumstances. But that is pending a full joint investigation with the fire service.”
He added: “We are happy to report that all occupants of the hostel were evacuated and there are no casualties. Welfare arrangements are in place for those affected.
“Investigation of the cause of the fire will now commence and we are actively seeking to minimise disruption to the city centre.”
Many of the residents, described as multi-national and the majority aged between 18 to 30, escaped in their night clothes and in their bare feet.
Nigel Stafford, support manager for the Red Cross, who are looking after the backpackers, said: “They are tired, disorientated but seem to be in reasonable spirits.
“As a result of the fire, 54 people have been evacuated. They are all foreign nationals and holidaymakers. Everyone has been accounted for.
“The Highland Council opened an emergency centre in Inverness where they are currently being catered for.
“They are all doing ok and are currently being interviewed by the police. No one has indicated what caused the fire.”
He added: “All of what they have got is what they are standing in. They are without their possessions.
“At the moment the building is not safe for them to see if anything can be rescued. We are in the process of providing clothing such as footwear.”
The Operations Control based at Inverness despatched two fire appliances from Inverness fire station and on arrival the Incident Commander requested additional resources including an aerial appliance to attend.
Firefighters from Beauly, Dingwall and Nairn were quickly on scene to support the Inverness crews.
Officers from Police Scotland along with fire crews ensured that a full evacuation had taken place before they set about extinguishing the blaze and searching the property.
Group manager Leishman said: “We had five appliances and the aerial platform in attendance. A full investigation will take place once the building is made safe.
“As far as we are aware, we are satisfied the alarms in the building with efficient.”