The day fire destroyed a supermarket

The News of December 17, 1993
The News of December 17, 1993
Nelson's column at Portsdown Hill

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The pall of smoke could be seen nearly 20 miles away in Portsmouth as one of the biggest fires in modern times in the region took hold.

It was nine days before Christmas and the showpiece Sainsbury superstore on the A27 at Chichester was packed with shoppers.

Shortly after 2.45pm, just as dusk was beginning to fall, a fire alarm was triggered in a storeroom.

About 10 minutes later that small fire had become an inferno and, as The News reported the next day, it was a pre-Christmas miracle that none of the 1,000 shoppers or staff inside the eight-year-old building was injured.

More than 200 firefighters from Sussex and Hampshire battled for more than eight hours to bring the blaze under control.

The A27, which passes the back of the building, was closed in both directions for more than three hours because of the thick, choking black smoke which engulfed both carriageways.

A meeting of Hampshire County Council in Winchester that afternoon was halted as news of the fire spread – just as councillors were debating an item about the lack of sprinklers in superstores.

Only a week previously The News reported that Hampshire fire chiefs hoped Sainsbury would heed a Derbyshire fire and rescue service report which called for sprinkler systems to be a legal requirement in large, open-planned stores.

The Chichester store at Westhampnett did not have sprinklers.

Senior divisional officer David Willard told a News reporter at the scene: ‘We were surprised at how rapidly it got out of control.’

The store was built on a former rubbish dump and environmentalists had warned previously that escaping methane gas could create a fire risk.

All hope of containing the blaze was lost an hour after it started when the roof over the front of the building collapsed, spreading the flames and forcing firefighters to retreat outside.

Chichester station officer Tony Morris said: ‘The situation had become too dangerous – we had to get those men out of there.’