Portsmouth fire: Priory School acts as refuge for 18 toddlers, babies, 51 adults and two cats
SHOCKED residents have told of their fear as smoke from a major fire at a car repair workshop engulfed their homes.
More than 40 firefighters tackled the inferno at Byngs Autos in Goldsmith Avenue, Southsea, as plumes of smoke darkening the Portsmouth skyline could be seen from miles around.
Nearby Priory School acted as a refuge for evacuated families – taking in 51 adults, 18 toddlers and babies and two cats.
Pensioner Sylvia Richardson, who lives in Orchard Road, one street down from the fire, said there ‘was so much smoke that she thought her own house must be alight’.
Sylvia, 82, added: ‘It was really quite worrying. The air was so thick with smoke that I couldn't see to the end of the garden.
‘The smoke was coming down my chimney and I initially thought it must be my house that was on fire.
‘The police told us to evacuate and we are still not sure when we can return. At the time I was really concerned about my house catching fire.’
As firefighters looked to ‘remove several cylinders’ from the stricken garage, residents also reported hearing a possible explosion.
Speaking minutes after the fire started, Pearl Davison told The News: ‘The plumes are very much still evident and there was, earlier, the sound of something exploding.
‘It was very, very smoky both indoors and outside.’
As the blaze began to take hold and emergency services became increasingly concerned about the welfare of nearby residents.
They evacuated houses in Orchard Road and some properties on Goldsmith Avenue.
People living in flats in Birdham House were one of the first to vacate their homes.
Michael Coles, 55, was visiting his brother Tony when he began to notice smoke drifting past the flat window.
He said: ‘Tony got a call from his son who lives downstairs to say the car repair place was on fire. Looking out of the window you could see a real thick smoke.
‘Emergency services were everywhere and there were several firefighters pointing hoses towards the building. You could smell the smoke in the flat and when we came outside it was even worse.’
A fellow apartment block resident, who asked not to be named, said: 'I saw smoke coming across the window outside my flat from about 10am.
‘The police asked me to evacuate because of the danger of smoke inhalation.
‘When I came outside there was a lot of smoke in the air. You could see it, smell it, and taste it.'
Pensioner Col Rogers, 82, first became aware of the fire after going into the garden of his ground floor flat.
Col said: ‘I could see and smell the smoke but I didn’t think too much of it until I had a knock on the door from the police asking me to leave. It looked like the garage had caught fire but you obviously just do as you are told.’
With rain setting in and evacuated residents having to wait in the surrounding streets, Priory School in Fawcett Road opened its doors to provide a place of refuge for evacuated residents.
Following advice from the emergency services and to ensure peoples’ safety, all staff and pupils were also all evacuated to the school’s sports hall and tennis centre.
Headteacher Stewart Vaughan said: ‘We were made aware of the fire in our vicinity and took immediate action to safeguard students and staff. All members of our school community are safe and we are working with the emergency services to provide support to those in our local community who need shelter.
‘In total we took in 51 adults, 18 toddlers and babies and two cats who were sheltered in a different part of the school from the children.
‘We would like to thank our staff, parents and students for their swift and collaborative actions. The most important thing is that all the children came to school safe and returned home safe.’
With smoke billowing up into the sky some residents only became aware of the seriousness of the situation after being contacted by relatives, many of whom lived several miles from the fire.
Terry Moore, 55, lives in Jessie Road, several streets down from Goldsmith Avenue.
He said: ‘I was in my house when I heard all the noise from the fire engines.
‘I realised the fire must be big when my son phoned me from Hilsea to say he could see the smoke from there.
‘I came outside to see what was going on. At one point the sky went really dark with all the smoke and there was a really strong burning smell in the air.’
Passer-by Reece Edwards said: ‘It was a huge fire which is at a car garage place in (Southsea) near Lidl and people had to get out their homes on Orchard Road because fear of gas canisters exploding.’