11:00 - 30 August 2007
Firefighters battling a terrifying hotel
blaze in a Cornish seaside town were faced with
clogged-up fire hydrants that could not be used.When
crews arrived at the burning building in Newquay,
hydrants nearby had silted-up with debris and were
useless in quelling the raging flames.
Fire bosses last night said that "a number"
of the underground fire hydrants had silted up with
mud, sand and debris and that crews had to run around
until they found one that worked.
Three people lost their lives in the fire that ripped
through the Penhallow Hotel at around midnight on
The contract for checking the fire hydrants, owned
by South West Water, was given to WS Atkins engineers
under a PFI scheme in 2001 - up until then the fire
service had been responsible.
A spokesman for Cornwall Fire Service last night
said: "The fire hydrants were checked earlier
this year in January by WS Atkins. However, on the
night of the Penhallow Hotel fire a number of hydrants
were found to be covered in silt and couldn't be used.
"As there was no time to clear the hydrants
out firefighters had to keep going until they found
one. Unfortunately a driver had parked his or her
car over one fire hydrant. Fire crews had to move
the vehicle in order to reach the water supply."
The spokesman added: "Cornwall County Fire Service
follows national guidelines which state that water
hydrants are subject to visual examination only. The
hydrants are all part of the ongoing investigation."
Fire Brigades' Union (FBU) bosses, branded the visual
examination guideline as "ridiculous."
Terry Nottle, FBU secretary for Cornwall, said: "We
have long argued against this style of inspection.
Sadly, it takes a tragedy like the Penhallow fire
to highlight the ridiculous system that operates.
"Let's face it - if a contractor can get away
with a quick five-minute look then he's going to do
it because it saves time and money for the company.
Wet testing the fire hydrant would take around half
Mr Nottle said the FBU in Cornwall was fighting to
take back around 1,000 high risk fire hydrants across
the county to wet test them themselves.
He said: "The only way the system will work
properly is if firefighters on the ground are continually
checking the hydrants as part of their normal duties
and not just every two years.
"Grass roots fire crews know what needs to be
done to protect the public and we should be allowed
to get on and do it. We've had these sort of problems
before. Unfortunately the Penhallow was not an isolated
In a town the size of Newquay fire hydrants are placed
about 90 metres from each other.
Dan Rogerson, Lib-Dem MP for North Cornwall said:
"I'm staggered that it is deemed all right that
a visual examination of a fire hydrant is acceptable.
We are seeing more and more revelations about what
happened that night.
"These worrying matters will have to be dealt
with by Cornwall County Council when it publishes
its report into what happened. I would certainly back
the FBU's fight to reclaim the fire hydrants."
A fire service source, quoted in a local newspaper,
said: "The main problem firefighters faced when
they got to the scene was that the hydrants in the
immediate vicinity were all seized up. This led to
a delay while the crew found alternative hydrants
further in the town.
"It also lowered the pressure because the water
was coming from a greater distance away."
Eyewitness Wayne Roberts who watched as the fire
took a grip, told the same newspaper: "Everyone
says the fire took hold really quickly, but in my
memory there was actually quite a long time before
the fire service started putting water on the blaze.
"When they finally did it really looked as if
they were watering down the steps. It really was rather
weak and it was only when the fire was well under
way that they got some serious water on it."
Under the terms of the contract, every two years
WS Atkins are obliged to carry out checks to make
sure that silt has not built up.
The source at the fire service added: "A similar
problem happened in St Ives last year. The inspections
do not take into account the fact that some hydrants
in Cornwall are exposed to sea air and are much more
likely to corrode."
A spokesman for WS Atkins told the WMN: "Cornwall
County Council are our client and for commercial reasons
it would be inappropriate for us to comment because
of client confidentiality."
Physics teacher Peter Hughes, 43, from Cheslyn Hay,
Staffordshire, died after he hurled himself from a
third-floor window. During the search of the devastated
hotel two sets of charred remains were discovered.
One is believed to belong to Mr Hughes' disabled mother
In Devon the county council employs two full-time
hydrant officers who continually check the apparatus.
A spokesman for Devon and Somerset Fire Service,
said: "All our water hydrants are owned by South
West Water but we maintain them, inspect them and
pay for any necessary work that needs to be done.
"Our hydrant officers are out and about continually
checking everything is in working order."