Landmark Belfast Primark store at risk of collapsing

Structural engineers assessing whether Bank Buildings can be saved

 

The 360 full-time and part-time staff at a Primark store in Belfast which was gutted by fire will be paid this week but a senior fire officer has warned that the landmark building which housed the clothing chain remains at risk of collapsing.

The Usdaw trade union held a “very positive meeting” with Primark’s management on Wednesday. It got assurances that staff would be paid this week and that more definitive responses about the future of the workers would be provided next week.

“Following yesterday’s fire at our Bank Buildings store in Belfast, the welfare of our colleagues remains our most important concern and we are fully committed to supporting them during this difficult time,” a spokeswoman for Primark said on Wednesday evening.

“Our management team in Belfast are meeting their colleagues over the next few days to provide them with the necessary support and information,” she said.

“We are continuing to work with the relevant authorities to determine the cause of the fire,” added the spokeswoman.

While structural engineers have carried out some initial examinations at the destroyed store it remains uncertain whether one of Belfast’s standout city centre buildings can be saved.

The charred shell of the five-storey building remains intact but there is still a danger that it could collapse “all or in part”, warned senior firefighter Aidan Jennings.

Mr Jennings said the fire was extreme and had caused major damage and structural collapse on all five floors of the Primark store.

Throughout Wednesday emergency services remained at the scene. Some 50 firefighters were dealing with hot spots and stock and timber that continued to burn.

Police cordon

A 45m police cordon was in place around the building forcing the continued closure of many nearby businesses.

Mr Jennings said there was a significant amount of twisted steelwork in the front part of the building. “There is still a risk it could collapse and that’s why we have the cordons in place,” he said.

Primark was undergoing a £30 million (€33.4 million) refurbishment and extension at the time of the fire which broke out at a top floor around 11am on Tuesday. Fire crews managed to save the extension.

The Bank Buildings, which was taken over by Primark in 1979, was designed by W H Lynn and opened in 1903. The store was the third business on the site. The first was Cunningham’s Bank which dated back to 1787 but went bust in 1798.

The Sinn Féin Belfast lord mayor Deirdre Hargey said it was “vital at this time that [Belfast City] Council and its city partners pull together to do whatever we can to support everyone affected by this devastating event”.

“Not only has this impacted on the Primark employees and the business itself, but it will have a knock-on effect for neighbouring businesses and city centre retailers, and they will need our support over the coming weeks and months. As a city, we all need to rally round those who need support now,” she added.

The fire at Bank Buildings, which Primark described as “iconic” and “much loved by the people of Belfast”, triggered considerable reaction and sadness in the city. And, reflecting the political paralysis, some cynics suggested that if Primark needed new accommodation they could take over Parliament Buildings at Stormont.