20 years ago today - Norwich library was an inferno

The library site tower. The library site tower.

Friday, August 1, 2014
9:33 AM

155,000 books and thousands of other precious documents were lost in the Norwich Central Library fire on this day in 1994.

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Firefighters tackle the blaze at Norwich Library.Firefighters tackle the blaze at Norwich Library.

Rosa McMahon reports on the stories which emerged from the ashes.

THE HEARTBROKEN LIBRARIAN

A rebound Norwich directory which just survived the Norwich library fire 20 years ago. Photo: Bill SmithA rebound Norwich directory which just survived the Norwich library fire 20 years ago. Photo: Bill Smith

Margaret Munford’s mother was a bookbinder – her love of libraries is in her blood.

So when the library assistant made her way to work at the Norwich Central Library on August 1 1994, she had no idea her life was about to be “turned upside down”.

The fire started at 7.20am and turned out to be the worst British library fire in living memory.

David Ashworth, operations manager at Hethersett Fire Service headquarters, who was one of the fire fighters tackling the blaze at the Norwich Library twenty years ago. Picture: Denise BradleyDavid Ashworth, operations manager at Hethersett Fire Service headquarters, who was one of the fire fighters tackling the blaze at the Norwich Library twenty years ago. Picture: Denise Bradley

Mrs Munford, 48 at the time and based in the reference section, was driving from her home in Long Stratton when she saw thick, black smoke billowing over the city centre.

When she arrived at the library car park around 8.20am, the mother of two and her traumatised colleagues saw their years of work and dedication up in flames.

Windows were smashing because of the 1,000 degrees Celsius heat, pages once from precious books were falling through the skies like confetti.

“It was really heartbreaking,” she said. “Your whole life was turned upside down.

Freeze drying saved our heritage

It was speed of action and cutting-edge technology which saved thousands of precious Norfolk books and documents from total destruction.

And, seemingly against all the odds, Norfolk’s heritage had been brought back from the brink.

While fire- or smoke-damaged books were sent to a specialist restorer in Scotland, around ten per cent of the local collections went to Oxfordshire instead.

These were 57 cubic metres of books and documents worst affected by the thousands of gallons of water which flooded into the library basement as firefighters desperately tried to quell the 1,000-degree inferno above.

To avoid the growth of bacteria, mould and fungus the soaked documents were immediately put into cold storage at minus 18 degrees Celsius.

They were then sent off to AEA Technology, a world-leading business which had grown out of the nuclear research carried out at Harwell in Oxfordshire.

The items were taken through the restoration process, which involved defrosting them and putting them in drying chambers.

Air was pumped out to create a vacuum, which meant the water could boil at a lower temperature and be removed without the use of damaging excessive heat.

Each batch took between a week and ten days to process in what was the largest rescue mission of its kind ever undertaken in Britain.

“There was no warning – it just happened. And it was a terrible trauma. I was just thinking about all that work and precious collections.

“There was an awful sense of loss. So much work taken and we wanted to make sure it was kept ok.

“But there was a realisation that there was items that would not be replaced.”

In the devastating days that followed, Mrs Munford and the library team entered the burnt out building, still hot with ash and smelling like burnt paper.

Between the lending and reference department, a staggering 125,000 books were lost out of the 140,000 collection.

“It was something out of science fiction. Computers were melted, the ash was still hot and there were wires hanging down,” she said.

Donning overalls, gloves and masks, the once white-collar workers were now trudging through the ashes, desperate to retrieve any salvageable items.

“We didn’t dream we would be able to save any of it,” she said.

“People would say ‘oh they’re only books’, but we were really distraught. We just knew was a dreadful loss.”

THE FIREMAN WHO HAS NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE IT

It was a warm, clear August morning and David Ashworth was on one of the last jobs of his night shift.

The fireman, then 27, was at Thorpe Green on the edge of Norwich when he saw smoke “pluming” over the city.

His team was immediately called to what turned out to be one of the biggest fires Norwich has ever seen.

When his crew arrived the city centre was already on lock-down, with 200 officers and firefighters battling the blaze.

“It was one of the biggest fires that I have been to in my 29 years,” he said.

Temperatures were so high that firefighters could not enter the burning building, instead tackling the flames by surrounding it.

Book cases with plastic feet could be see falling to the floor, melting under the heat.

Mr Ashworth, now Norfolk fire’s area manager, said the blaze spread quickly because of heating and ventilation ducts as well as the heavy wood panelling. Fire crews spent three days battling the fire.

“It was upsetting to see. But what really brought it home was the impact on the library and archive staff,” he said.

“They were totally distraught by the devastation.”

But Mr Ashworth conceded if the library had been open to the public, the tragedy could have been a lot worse.

THE WORLD-CLASS TECHNIQUES AT THE RECORD OFFICE

It was speed of action and cutting-edge technology which saved thousands of precious Norfolk books and documents from total destruction.

And, seemingly against all the odds, Norfolk’s heritage had been brought back from the brink.

While fire- or smoke-damaged books were sent to a specialist restorer in Scotland, around ten per cent of the local collections went to Oxfordshire instead.

These were 57 cubic metres of books and documents worst affected by the thousands of gallons of water which flooded into the library basement as firefighters desperately tried to quell the 1,000-degree inferno above.

To avoid the growth of bacteria, mould and fungus the soaked documents were immediately put into cold storage at minus 18 degrees Celsius.

They were then sent off to AEA Technology, a world-leading business which had grown out of the nuclear research carried out at Harwell in Oxfordshire.

The items were taken through the restoration process, which involved defrosting them and putting them in drying chambers.

Air was pumped out to create a vacuum, which meant the water could boil at a lower temperature and be removed without the use of damaging excessive heat.

Each batch took between

a week and ten days to process in what was the largest rescue mission of its kind ever undertaken in Britain.

The reference library moved to Shirehall before moving to Anglia Square.

3 comments

  • A tragedy that so many books and archive material was destroyed! But for me no sorrow that the building is no more,which I have always seen as a ghastly building,and who remembers the fine Public Library at Charing Cross demolished by the planners

    Add your comment | Report this comment

    Albert Cooper

    Friday, August 1, 2014

  • "The first of August, ninety-four Was sad for Norwich folk. Our Library and our library books Hung over the City as smoke."

    Add your comment | Report this comment

    Heather Enid Wells

    Friday, August 1, 2014

  • This was a sad day for 'A Fine City'

    Add your comment | Report this comment

    JP

    Friday, August 1, 2014

The views expressed in the above comments do not necessarily reflect the views of this site

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