Norfolk guest speaks of fire at hotel

A Norfolk great-grandmother has spoken of how being caught up in a hotel fire was one of the most frightening events of her life.

Judith Hambrook, 75, from Black Street, Martham, near Great Yarmouth, was part of the East Anglian coach party that was staying at the Tantons Hotel, in Bideford, Devon, when a fire broke out on the third floor of the 18th-century building last Tuesday.

The party had been on the first night of a four-night break organised by Norwich-based company Sunrise Direct when the fire happened. About 60 firefighters were involved in tackling the blaze. Four people had to be rescued from the hotel roof and more than 50 people had to be led away from the hotel.

Mrs Hambrook, who had been staying in a room on the second floor, said: 'I was woken up at about 3.30am by the fire alarm, and I remember thinking, 'is this real?'

'I looked out of the window and could hear shouting and screaming. I could hear people shouting, 'help! help!'

'It was quite frightening. Then I saw police come running along with torches and shouting to the people.'

She said by this time she could smell smoke so she dressed quickly, grabbed her bag and phone and went to find an exit – but she ended up trapped between two doors which would not open.

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'That was very, very scary. I really started to panic and I started screaming,' she said, adding that she was able to get back on to the second-floor landing by using her initiative to open one of the doors through a hole left by a door handle.

Once back on the second floor corridor Mrs Hambrook met up with another guest and they were able to negotiate their way out of the building safely.

'When we got outside there were people there in their nightdresses, with no shoes or socks. When you looked up you could see the smoke and the flames coming out of the building,' she said. 'It was absolutely terrifying, one of the most frightening experiences of my life. If I had not been able to open one of those doors I dread to think what could have happened. I have nightmares about it.'

The guests were taken over to the nearby Royal Hotel where they were checked over by doctors, given food and drink, and were able to freshen up, and Mrs Hambrook praised the Royal Hotel staff and also the Bideford authorities and emergency services for how they had helped everybody.

She said the Sunrise party left Bideford to return home at about 3.45pm last Tuesday, and that there was further drama on the return journey when the coach was involved in an accident near Bristol. Mrs Hambrook eventually got home just before midnight.

Following the fire, Anthony Westhead, 63, of Holywell Avenue, Folkestone, Kent, has appeared before North Devon magistrates charged with arson with intent to endanger life. Westhead is next due to appear at Exeter Crown Court on June 17.

Do you know anybody affected by the fire? Call reporter Emma Knights on 01603 772428 or email

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