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Code Red - Looking back at the Big W Liverpool fire of 1972

50 years ago today, on 11 October 1972, a blaze broke out in the Woolworths Family Shopping Centre in Liverpool. The structure was relatively new, being only 6 years old and consisted of 3 levels and a basement carpark. It is believed that the fire started at around 5:15pm, where luckily enough there were minimal shoppers inside the building and as a result, the evacuation process was speedy, only taking 10 minutes to complete.

Shopping centre destroyed in Liverpool 11 October 1972, Museum of Fire Collection
Shopping centre destroyed in Liverpool 11 October 1972, Museum of Fire Collection

The call to attend the fire was sent through first to Liverpool Fire Station at 5:16pm. With Busby in tow the two stations were the first responders to the incident. The fire itself began in a wall cavity and through the roof of the first level of the shopping centre, in the north-eastern corner. When Liverpool and Busby arrived, conveniently for them there were 2 off duty firefighters in the shopping centre when they noticed the fire breaking out in the building. They assisted Liverpool station by bringing through a line of hose to begin dealing with the blaze, however, had to be pulled out once the integrity of the roof was compromised. From then on, they continued to attack the blaze from the perimeter of the building.

At 5:21pm a code red was issued over the radio which brought more Fire Stations into the fold, now the call extended out to Cabramatta, Revesby, and Parramatta. When Cabramatta arrived at the scene at 5:25pm the blaze was so large that they called for extra support with Fairfield, Campsie and Stanmore coming to the call bringing the total number of stations present to 8. When headquarters became more involved, they called for even further support with Bankstown, Guildford, Auburn, and Silverwater coming to assist at 5:31pm. Additionally, this code red extended the call for help to the Country Council, Water Board, Police and Ambulance services.

Interior of Liverpool shopping centre after blaze October 1972, Museum of Fire Collection
Interior of Liverpool shopping centre after blaze October 1972, Museum of Fire Collection

The fire was fast and extremely large, with it beginning early on the first level and spreading quickly due to the flammable merchandise spread throughout the store. Once the roof was compromised the fire only grew worse. At 6:25pm, a tower which was situated on top of the shopping centre had collapsed. Containing over 190 litres of oil, the fire was exacerbated to such extremities that no matter how much water the firefighters put onto the blaze, or how many fire trucks were involved, the building was going to be completely destroyed and so it became a matter of mitigation, an issue of ensuring that this fire did not spread onto other buildings that neighboured nearby. To add on, the smoke plumes were so extensive that it could be seen from Taverners hill over 26km away.

Liverpool shopping centre destroyed 1972, Museum of Fire Collection
Liverpool shopping centre destroyed 1972, Museum of Fire Collection

The firefighters in attendance worked tirelessly with water jets firing from all corners of the building. They consisted of a variety of different streams, being from monitors, branches connected to ladders and firefighters on the ground wielding hoses. The large, combined effort meant that the fire became contained relatively quickly as after 2 hours at 7:20 pm, the call was made to “stop”. This call did not mean that the fire was extinguished, however, it did mean that it had become much more manageable. During this time many members of the general public came to view the smouldering rubble that was the shopping centre. It wouldn’t be until a number of days later on 13 October at 5:55pm that the fire was declared to be completely out.


- Story by Museum of Fire Heritage Team

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