Skip to content

A Soho Basement


It was around 2am in the morning there were still a group of three or four firemen seated in the recreation room cum bar at Soho fire station. We had just decided that perhaps it was about time we got our heads down for the night, for tomorrow was another busy part time working day. The danger hour for the pyromaniacal rubbish igniters which plague this particular fire station had by now passed. So with a bit of luck the next bells we would hear would be the six short rings on the fire bells at 6-45am the time to get up in the morning bells. In the fire service it pays to be a bit of a pessimistic optimist, because things never quite work out how you think (or hope) they will, so it turned out this night!. As we uttered the words “Ah well then, time for bed byes” gathered up our glasses to wash them in the sink in the bar, the great big chromium plated fire bell, in the recreation room clamoured out. Ah sod it! No peace for the wicked!. At least we were still up and about, did not have to clamber out of our nice warm snug beds. Always a blessing this, one of the advantages of being a night owl! One does not have to get out of bed for fire calls quite as often as the early morning larks on the fire station.

Down below in the appliance room the red green and yellow appliance indicators lights upon the ceiling were telling that all three of Soho’s machines would attending this call. I was quietly rigging in my fire gear, the pole house doors on the floor above were crashing open and closed. The swishing noise’s on the fire poles, then the thump on the pole house mat announced the arrival of the go to bed early larks. There was very little or no conversation, all were quietly rigging in fire gear, the drivers starting up and gunning the appliance motors. The duty man came out of the watch room then shouting above the noise of the road engines of the machines announced Pump Escape Pump and turntable ladders, fire at the Haymarket on Soho’s fire ground. The officers in charge of each machine pulled down on the braided cords from the ceiling, each of the big double doors folded back and inwards. The big diesel engines of the three machines roared in unison, then billowing out thick white exhaust smoke, together off into the night we went.

Turn left into Shaftsbury Avenue, carry on down to Piccadilly Circus, here at this time of the morning we take a little liberty with London’s traffic. The Haymarket which is a turning directly off of Piccadilly Circus is one way traffic against us, but the three machines swoop around the Circus and turn into the Haymarket against the traffic flow, saving a minute or so on the attendance time.

The address on the call slip was that of a well known national bank, which we found down on the right hand side, just past the Haymarket theatre. At first as the three machines ground to a juddering halt, it seemed that nothing un-toward was happening. The building was a large six storey building, double fronted, and the ground floor the main bank premises was lit up even at this time in the morning. There was no sign of smoke or fire, all were beginning to think just another Mickey call (false alarm), but never-the-less the routine search began. Banks are notoriously difficult to break into for obvious reasons. Nothing deters the LFB though (remember the derogatory acronym from previous stories) London’s finest Burglars. Our problem then arises, that if we simply smash the front door in, if there is then no fire situation, we would then have to wait for possibly hours whilst Mr Plod (the policeman) arrives to take charge of the unsecured premises. So thus we are very subtle, we like to go in and out with the least possible damage.

On this particular fire call I was driving the ladders (turntable) and thus had a certain amount of freedom to join in the search. Since there was no sign of smoke at the lighted front of the bank, the firemen casually moved down the side (it was an end of terraced building) one of the more junior fireman approached me saying he thought he could smell smoke at a side entrance door. I joined him walking down the side of the building where he took me to a wide set of double doors set back three feet or so within the building. At first glance it was obvious that these were outward opening final doors exit doors to a means of escape from fire within the building (a bit like cinema exit doors). Then sure enough not only could I smell smoke, but small wisps of smoke were percolating around the door jambs. Although not an officer at the time, merely senior fireman present, I issued commands. Go and get the Guvnor, lay out a jet (hose line) fetch the breaking in gear. I have no memory of breaking in through this door, but since it was outward opening it would have been quite difficult, most probably we used a large axe on it.

Once we had the two double doors open, something happened which really should have warned me to be on my guard. There was no fierce blast of heat or anything like that, instead the smoke in the passageway wafted backwards gently into the building. Perhaps it was the time of the morning, or the seeming lack of heat in the building, but it put me a relaxed and un-worried mood, then the large two and three quarter inch diameter main fire fighting hose being laid out on the pavement seemed a bit excessive. I still do not understand why, but even at this stage as we were about to make an entry into the burning building, there was still only myself and two or three junior firemen present at this part of the building.

Being the senior hand I commandeered the jet (branch/nozzle) and entered through the open double doors leading down to the basement. First there was a small landing of around four feet, then a flight of steps of around four or five feet in width leading downwards. Dragging the heavy hose and being assisted by the other fireman I made my way down them, to arrive at yet another landing. The stairs then turned to the right, another flight of around a dozen steps. I was now standing on the basement floor, in a wide passageway leading off away from me. The smoke was not excessive (by fireman’s standards that is) you could just about see your hand in front of your face, it was of the light grey smoke, not the nasty black stuff, you can bail out with a bucket. Then again by fireman’s standards there was not to much heat. Unusually (remember this was two or three in the morning) there were some side wall lights on glowing very dimly through the smoke, probably because this was a emergency fire exit route.

So there I was alone in this smoke filled passageway, not overly worried, the other firemen were feeding the heavy hose around the two ninety degree bends on the staircase enclosure. I had gone forward ten or fifteen feet down the passageway, all on my own struggling with the hose, shouting back to the other firemen to lighten up the hose when it happened. I think I was looking backwards at the time, calling out to the other firemen, when I suddenly became aware it seem to be getting lighter. Turning around I looked to my front, and there was the source of the light. Up at ceiling level rolling ominously towards me were bright white orange flames. These days since the film Back draught, everybody and his dog, now knows that this is a flashover, but it’s a hell of a lot different when you are in one. By the way as a matter of interest, from my limited experience they don’t come with backing sound tracks, IE there is no whistling or roaring noises, they are ominously quite. This one had taken me utterly and totally by surprise, by my standards there had been no excessive, heat or smoke, and yet there was the bloody thing rolling over the ceiling to bite me.

Here I am going to digress somewhat. All good firemen hate to retreat (despite what it says in the manuals) when things start to get a bit untenable, put a bit more water on it and wait and see is the rule. Then if that don’t work, it is permissible to retreat in an orderly fashion. Upon the word of command ‘Panic, Panic like F-ck, again is another delightful old brigade saying. On this particular occasion I was not given an option to panic, or get out quick, because the flames were rolling over the ceiling toward me, and my way out involved running up two flights of stairs in thick smoke. Once again another old brigade saying is ‘stay low’ the last place one wants to be in a situation like this is the staircase enclosure, because it will act like a chimney flue the flames and hot gases all rising up inside it.

So not necessary by choice but through pure instinct, I dropped down onto one knee and opened up the hand controlled branch fitted with a three quarter inch nozzle, and aimed it at the ceiling about ten or twelve feet in front of me, then kept it moving from side to side and backwards and forwards. In theory, if not in practise, when aimed at the correct angle, the solid jet of water breaks up then cascading back down from the ceiling should absorb the heat and cool the fire down, fortunately for me on this occasion it worked in practice. How long all this went on for I cannot remember, only that when I was eventually joined by other firemen there seemed to be an inch or two of water all over the basement floor. This was I think deemed by them to be excessive water damage by them, but I think my emotional and expletive rich reply, warned them to keep quite on the subject.

It would be interesting to talk to the learned doctors whatever on this subject, because I think that abnormally high adrenalin surges tends to affect the memory, because I certainly had one hell of a surge that night. I can only now remember that the fire was in a storeroom at the end of the passageway, and that it had spalled most of the plaster off of the walls. It was in fact a very severe fire, but I do not remember much else about that fire, other than I was very fortunate to walk away from it unsinged.

sign the guestbook