Revellers flee as second major fire in six years rips through Old Town

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FIRE crews were today still tackling a major blaze which broke out last night in the Old Town.

Hundreds of Christmas revellers were evacuated from Victoria Street and the Cowgate after a fire broke out in Khushi's Restaurant just before 8pm.

Today, 15 hours after the blaze started, firemen were still fighting the flames and expect to be there all day.

The area was packed with festive party-goers on what is traditionally one of the busiest nights of the year for the emergency services and licensed premises. The fire happened six years

to the month after a huge blaze in the Cowgate destroyed a dozen properties and businesses.

Flames as high as 20ft were clearly visible amid plumes of black smoke.

The fire destroyed the roof and the top floors of the Indian restaurant and there was concern the flames would spread to neighbouring businesses – the Liquid Room nightclub and Finnegan's Wake pub.

While it has been contained, the fire was still burning today and firefighters were continuing to hose down the building. Crews were expected to remain on site for most of the day.

Fire bosses said it was too early to say what caused the blaze.

Fire crews were stretched to the limit during a frantic night, attending two other major fires in the Capital and several other incidents.

Gas canisters exploded damaging Rick's Bar in Frederick Street and a chip-pan fire led to crews being called out to a sheltered housing complex in Moredun.

Group manager Jimmy Burns, of Lothian and Borders Fire and Rescue Service, said: "It was definitely a very busy night for us, but we were able to cope."

More than 50 firefighters attended Victoria Street, taking a top-down approach to tackling the fire which involved using ladders and a constant supply of water for many hours.

Additional firefighters had to be placed on emergency standby.

Mr Burns said it was too early to suggest what may have caused the fire as crews were unable to enter the building to start investigations.

He stressed his team would remain on site throughout today and an assessment will be made later today as to whether it is safe to re-open Victoria Street to the public. He said: "There is clearly a public safety issue which is the priority.

"The restaurant has extensive fire damage – whole floors have been destroyed by the fire and the entire building has been affected.

"As to how much the damage may have cost? That just cannot be estimated at the moment."

The fire was contained within the Khushi's building, but the neighbouring businesses – the Liquid Room and Finnegan's Wake – have both been badly damaged by smoke and water from the fire.

Clubbers at the Liquid Room told the Evening News how they saw smoke coming through the building's air vents as they queued for drinks at the bar, waiting for the Sensational Alex Harvey Band to take to the stage.

Leila Tehrani, 26, a writer, from Glasgow, said: "I had just got a pint when we were all told there was a fire and we had to get out.

"Everything was really orderly, but we could smell the fire as soon as we got out, then the flames started emerging from the top of the building – nobody had thought it was that bad.

"Thankfully we never saw any ambulances taking people out, though."

Victoria Street was promptly closed as seven fire engines began to station themselves in the road and police worked quickly to erect a cordon and remove revellers from the area.

Neighbouring householders remained in their properties and many were seen hanging out to get a glimpse of the developing drama.

Billy Topp, 26, a barman from Edinburgh, said he saw lots of people coughing as they left the burning building.

He said: "You could actually see the smoke seeping out of the Liquid Room."

Ambulance crews were called to the scene but there were no serious casualties.

Fire crews set up an operational camp outside the women's clothing shop, Long Tall Sally, where firefighters could be seen stacking used oxygen tanks and taking bottles of water for refreshment.

Caroline Jamieson, 18, from Dalkeith, a sales assistant in the shop, was with its owner on the Royal Mile when they saw smoke from the blaze.

She said: "We had actually tried about two weeks ago to book a table in Khushi's for the night, but it has been fully booked so we had to go somewhere else.

"We could see lots of smoke – even from where we were on the Royal Mile."

This is the second fire this year to hit the restaurant. In August, a fire which started in the roof caused hundreds of diners to be evacuated.

Mohammed Riaz, a partner in Khushi's, told the Evening News he was left "dumbfounded" by the news.

He said: "There is no indication as to how it started yet – I think it's more than likely that it started in Khushi's.

"I would imagine that the ceiling did cave in – it's a natural thing that would happen in a fire.

"It's seven decades of a family business that unfortunately will be destroyed, which is not only a loss to the family but to others too.

"The chances of it opening again in the immediate future are very limited."

While crews fought the restaurant fire, others dealt with a fire at Rick's Bar on Frederick Street where compressed gas canisters – stored in an cellar – had exploded.

The fire destroyed an air conditioning unit and ten people had to be evacuated from neighbouring properties because of the smoke.

More crews were also deployed to sheltered accommodation in Moredun Park Street to deal with a chip pan fire. Neighbours were evacuated and a 65-year-old woman was treated for smoke inhalation by paramedics at the scene.

Police said they remained on site at Victoria Street to deal with the road closure.

The 2002 Cowgate fire broke out at 8pm on Saturday, December 7. It was extinguished 52 hours later after at least 12 properties were destroyed, including the Gilded Balloon, La Belle Angele nightclub and the Bridge Jazz Bar.

It was eventually blamed on a faulty fusebox.

Fire chiefs estimated the cost of the operation at 300,000.

Rockers flee as panic grips Liquid Room

LEGENDARY 1970s rockers, The Sensational Alex Harvey Band, were set to take to the stage of the Liquid Room just minutes after fans were evacuated from the building.

Their support band, FastLayne, had just finished and the main act was preparing to play.

The group was rushed out by bouncers, leaving behind equipment worth more than 16,000 – much of it with an even greater sentimental value.

"You can't put a price on so much of it," said guitarist Julian Saxby as the band gathered in the Apex City Hotel, in the Grassmarket.

Bass player Chris Glen told the Evening News how, after leaving the club, he was making his way up the lane between the building and the tenement next door, when he tripped over a woman who had fallen in front of him.

"At least 15 people must have just walked over us. I told them they had to move or people would die.

"I just couldn't catch my breath – I'm a man of 58, no longer in my 20s. I have never felt so physically drained," he said. "But mentally I am so happy – because I am alive."