Photo gallery: “It was a vicious fire. It didn’t seem to take long at all to become a really big fire” - villagers tell of blaze that claimed woman’s life in Sedgeford, west Norfolk

Fire fighters at the scene of a fire at a converted chapel in Sedgeford. Picture: Matthew Usher. Fire fighters at the scene of a fire at a converted chapel in Sedgeford. Picture: Matthew Usher.

Monday, December 31, 2012
12:00 PM

The body of an elderly woman was found in the fire-ravaged remains of a Norfolk house, it was confirmed last night.

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"Investigations are ongoing to establish the cause of the fire which, at this time, remains unexplained. A seal remains in place on the property as enquiries between the fire service and police continue.
Next of kin have been informed, formal identification of the body is still to take place, and the coroner will be informed in due course."

Norfolk Constabulary statement.

Firefighters were called just after 7am yesterday to the property, a converted former chapel built of the distinctive local carrstone at Sedgeford, near Heacham.

The blaze spread quickly through the two-storey building, at the junction of the main B1454 Docking to Heacham road with Snettisham Road, leaving it a burnt-out shell and threatening to put the building in jeopardy of collapse.

That danger seriously hampered efforts by Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service experts to establish whether anyone was inside or was away at the time that the blaze broke out.

They spent several hours at the scene trying to account for the occupant or anyone else who may have been at the house.

But last night, Norfolk police issued a statement confirming that the body of an elderly woman had been found.

It added: “Investigations are ongoing to establish the cause of the fire which, at this time, remains unexplained. A seal remains in place on the property as enquiries between the fire service and police continue.

“Next of kin have been informed, formal identification of the body is still to take place, and the coroner will be informed in due course.”

Some 40 firefighters were involved in tackling the blaze – described by one neighbour as being “vicious”. The emergency operation involved drawing water from the Heacham River that runs through Sedgeford because of the need for extra supplies.

Station manager Tim Edwards, based at King’s Lynn, said crews from Sandringham, Heacham and Hunstanton were among the first to arrive. He added: “It was clear we were faced with a very severe fire at that point.”

He said the first floor of the property collapsed shortly after those crews had arrived and this was followed later by the building’s roof.

Amid uncertainty about any casualties, and as timbers still smouldered several hours after the fire was brought under control, experts from the fire service’s Dereham-based USAR (Urban Search and Rescue unit) used their specialist training to try to trace anyone who might still be inside the ruined home. A search and rescue dog was also deployed at the property.

Other fire crews from Massingham, Fakenham and Lynn were drafted in to assist at the height of the blaze.

Neighbour Desmond Minns said he had got up at about 6.30am to let the family’s dobermann dogs out and there was no sign of anything untoward across the road. He was planning to go back to bed when he saw the flashing lights of the fire engines and realised the old chapel – where he and his wife Judith had lived when they were first married more than 30 years ago – was ablaze.

The 61-year-old builder and lifelong Sedgeford villager added: “It was a vicious fire. It didn’t seem to take long at all to become a really big fire.”

He and his wife had still been hoping for the best that nobody was inside the old chapel, which they said had included a studio for painting, when it caught fire. Mr Minns added: “It was a lovely old building – it really was.”

A party of eight family and friends – including children – and their dogs from Tollesbury in Essex had arrived at a nearby holiday cottage to start a week-long break only hours before the tragic events unfolded.

One of them, Nichola Cain, said she was scared for the safety of her nephews Jude, aged six, and Finlay, eight, when they saw the ferocity of the fire and feared it might spread.

Norfolk Constabulary investigators were still at the house well into the afternoon. Snettisham Road was closed to traffic outside the premises for much of the day.

As the search for the home’s occupant had begun, the East of England Ambulance Service sent an ambulance crew and a clinical manager, who remained at the scene for some three hours before being stood down.

An officer from the service’s Hazardous Area Response Team was on standby for a further hour-and-a-half.

- To see photos from the scene of the fire, view the photo gallery at the top-right of this page.

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