On the 20 November 1973 at 3:42pm, control received the call to a fire which had engulfed the multistorey Woolworths located at Warringah Mall in Brookvale in Sydney’s Northern Beaches. Dee Why was the first to respond on site with Manly’s motor and ladder unit closely following by and arriving as the second on scene. The severity of the blaze was not to be underestimated and the building was tremendously consumed by the fire with the unfortunate situation of two women trapped inside the store. The two women were employees of Woolworths and had found themselves barred within the stores pay office. The size of the blaze and the added worry of civilians trapped saw the emergency levels escalate with multiple red messages called on the fireground and sent through to Headquarters. The following resulted in rapid support of the brigades from Narrabeen, Crow’s Nest and Mosman, with additional crews from Headquarters, The Rocks, and Neutral Bay to swiftly follow.
Within minutes of the outbreak, it was estimated that 60% of the Woolworths building was aflame and adjacent small shops were either catching on fire or threatening the whole shopping complex. By 4:19pm Superintendents J. Ford and J. Christianson with Inspector W. Herbert arrived from Headquarters to the incident to coordinate the crews on site. After quickly surveying Superintendent Ford sent the red message of, “make stations ten – building 300ft x 200ft well alight – four motors at work – fire surrounded and confined”. Appliances from Stanmore and Pyrmont were called upon to standby to supply additional manpower if needed whilst Lane Cove stood by at Crow's Nest Fire Station.
Because of the weather conditions and the topographical features of the Northern Beaches landscape, the use of radios by crews proved difficult with frequent radio blackouts between Control and the fireground. In some instances, messages were relayed to Control by telephone to make sure that the Chief Officer was fully informed and kept up to date on the situation. Altogether, 14 officers and 46 firefighters utilising 3 pumpers, 1 set of ladders and 7 internal hydrants tackled the destructive blaze.
During the efforts to minimize and extinguish the flames several firefighters such as Sation Officer E. Goodman, 1st Class Firefighter W. Denoon, Station Officer D. Cookson, 1st Class Firefighter D. Meek, and District Officer A. Lewis attempted to locate the two women who had been trapped inside the Woolworths. Unfortunately, their desperate attempts were unsuccessful as the heat from the flames was too much for the firefighters to be able to handle and the structure itself was so compromised that sections collapsed and inhibited access to be able to conduct a rescue.
By 5:49pm the Woolworths supermarket had been utterly devastated and reduced to nothing but a smoldering ruin. Thanks to the courageous efforts of firefighters, no other large stores were affected as the fire was able to be relatively contained to the Woolworths. Just prior to the blaze there were only 30 shoppers inside who were all able evacuate from the premises. Superintendent Ford would issue the Stop message at 5:49pm. Three firefighters and a civilian were taken to Manly Hospital due to injuries caused by the fire, but all were later discharged. The search for the women who were trapped inside resumed once the blaze was over, Unfortunately, both women did not survive, with the first body found at 6:40pm and the second body found two hours later. This sad event was mollified by the loss of life being limited to two and the brave efforts of firefighters in confining the catastrophe.
-Story by Museum Curator, Ben Dickson