A SENIOR fire officer has described the fire that gutted a Primark store in Belfast as one of the biggest they have battled in a number of years.
Flames and thick black smoke engulfed the five-story historic building in the city centre from 11am on Tuesday morning.
More than 100 firefighters battled for over six hours as the major blaze ripped through the Bank Buildings.
CEO of Primark Paul Marchant said he is deeply shocked and saddened by the fire and moved to reassure staff that have been gravely impacted by the blaze, saying he will ensure they are “fully supported”.
The building, which has been in the heart of Belfast’s shopping district since 1787, had recently undergone a multimillion-pound refurbishment.
Primark customers and staff were evacuated from the building at around 11am on Tuesday after smoke could be seen billowing from the roof.
Flames reaching at least 50 feet could be seen right across Belfast’s skyline.
The historic clock at the top of the building was engulfed in flames before the fire spread from the roof to the floor below.
Parts of the roof then collapsed as thick black smoke and fire ripped through the rest of the flagship store.
The building has survived bombs and fires throughout its long history in the city.
Michael Graham, assistant chief fire and rescue officer, said they would continue to deal with the fire into the evening and potentially overnight.
He said he did not know what caused it, nor whether there were fire alarms or sprinklers in place. Nobody was injured.
He expressed “concerns” over the structural integrity of the building, with part of it “prone to collapse” and said a 30-metre cordon had been established for that reason.
“It was a difficult fire and a fire that has continued for approximately six hours,” he said.
“It has been a long and arduous six hours for them but we will continue to fight the fire until we extinguish it.
“It is one of the biggest we have experienced in the last two to three years.”
He said he was concerned about the front and the two sides of the structure.
Crews are fighting the blaze on several fronts.
Last week, Primark announced a recruitment drive for more than 100 jobs as it is currently undergoing renovations to add 30,000 sq ft.
Work to complete the bigger store was to be finished by the end of the year.
The fire will have an impact on hundreds of jobs at Northern Ireland’s largest Primark store.
In a statement, Mr Marchant said: “We are deeply shocked and saddened by the fire today at our Bank Buildings store in Belfast city centre.
“The safety and wellbeing of our customers, colleagues and construction team is of course the most important consideration and we are truly relieved that all were evacuated safely.
“We would like to thank the emergency services for their swift response and ongoing actions.
“Our store is housed in an iconic building and much loved by the people of Belfast.
“We would like to reassure our customers, colleagues and the wider community in Belfast that we are committed to working with the authorities and our building contractors to establish the cause of the fire.
“We are working closely with our team in Belfast to ensure they are fully supported during this challenging period.
“We would like to thank everybody for their support during this difficult time.”
Hundreds of members of the public were removed from the area as they city went into lockdown with police closing roads and diverting traffic to allow firefighters to tackle the blaze.
Loud bangs could be heard coming from the fire, while large pieces of debris were seen falling from the building.
Joan McCoy, president of the Royal Society of Ulster Architects (RSUA), said that these types of buildings give Belfast a “unique identity and character”.
“The Bank Building is a very important part of the city’s architectural heritage and is loved by many,” she added.
“This building has survived bombs and fire before. We can only hope that the damage is not too severe and that the building can be saved.”