IT IS now more than 30 years since such a catastrophic loss of life was caused by an accidental building fire in Scotland.
Two dates are indelibly marked on the collective memories of the fire services in Scotland: March 28, 1960, when 19 firemen died tackling a whisky warehouse blaze, and November 19, 1968, when 22 people perished after becoming trapped in a former whisky store behind iron-barred windows.
Both resulted in fundamental changes in fire safety precautions that only became obvious with hindsight.
The firemen who died outside Arbuckle, Smith & Co’s whisky bond in Cheapside Street, Anderston, Glasgow, were killed when a massive explosion blew out the whole side of the building, propelling hundreds of tons of masonry onto the men below.
Three fire appliances were buried under the rubble in what became Britain’s worst peacetime fire service disaster. It became clear that housing a million gallons of whisky and rum under one roof was inadvisable.
Then, eight years later and just 400 yards away, a fire broke out on the lower floors of a former whisky store housing new upholstery and a glassware business. Horrified onlookers watched helplessly as the victims died behind the impenetrable window barriers. The workers could be seen from the street, screaming for help and beating the windows with furniture in their attempts to escape.
The council later ordered warehouse owners to remove iron bars installed in the Victorian era to prevent break-ins.
Thankfully, large loss of life during fires is rare, but blazes are particularly dangerous in buildings which house groups of elderly and infirm patients.
Britain’s worst hospital fire came at Coldharbour Hospital in Berkshire in 1972 when 30 patients were killed. Ten years later a further seven patients died at Warlington Park in Sussex, but at that time hospitals were still Crown property and not subject to legislation. Now NHS property is governed, like everything else, by strict workplace fire precaution regulations.
These also cover the private care-home sector, which boomed during the 1990s as the result of an increasingly elderly population and the reduction in NHS and council provision. Although there have been fire deaths among residents throughout the country, they have, in the majority of cases, been restricted to single fatalities.
As fire safety consultants point out, it usually takes a mass tragedy to trigger official action and tightening of the regulations. In America, sprinkler systems were declared mandatory and installed in all health care premises after a fire in which two patients died in a Kansas hospital
As a result, says Edinburgh-based consultant Tony Paterson, the former deputy fire chief in Northumberland, the loss of life and loss of property in health care premises in the US has been progressively cut by two-thirds over a 10-year period, and the cost of fitting sprinklers has been recouped in just five years by the large reduction in insurance premiums required.
Not so in the UK, however. Even new hospital wards, such as those at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary in Little France, are still being constructed without automatic sprinkler systems.
"The National Library of Scotland has recently been fitted with a sprinkler system to protect our literary heritage," Paterson said at the time. "Do lives not also count? The problem in this country is that we always seem to have to wait for a tragedy to happen before doing something about it."
Factory fires in Keighley, Yorkshire, and Liverpool in 1956 and 1962, which led to mass fatalities, resulted in much-needed changes to fire escape regulations.
When 56 people died in a fire at a football match in Bradford in 1985, new legislation on ground safety was introduced.
The Woolworth’s department store fire in Manchester in 1988, in which 11 people died, brought changes to the rules governing the flammability of foam furniture.
The King’s Cross tube station disaster in 1987, when 31 people died after a cigarette was dropped into a machine room beneath a wood-framed escalator crowded with commuters, brought about a new examination of fire regulations in all workplaces, not just those in the transport field, across the country.
However much the regulations are tightened, though, human complacency has a habit of undoing the good work. Just five years later, underground staff were found to be covering smoke detectors so they could have a quick cigarette between duties but not set off station fire alarms.
Contractors were also accused of putting plastic bags over detectors while they worked in stations. The abuses only came to light when offenders forgot to remove bags and they were found during inspections by the fire brigade.
"Whatever new regulations are introduced, human nature finds a way of getting around them," Parkin said. The UK now has more than 60 fire statutes, which leads to confusion, he added. This year the government hopes to bring them together under a new Fire Safety Reform Act.
"This will lead to proper fire risk assessments before something happens, which is the way it should be," Parkin said.
Despite the general improvements made in safety, particularly through the installation of smoke alarms in homes, around 100 people still die in accidental fires every year in Scotland.