AS Strathclyde Fire and Rescue prepares to launch a city-wide memorial to its fallen heroes, in the first of a series, CATRIONA STEWART takes a look at fatal fires that left a mark on the city

IT'S one of Glasgow's most historic and best-loved theatres... but in 1969 the Theatre Royal was almost lost to fire.

And the blaze, which burned for 10 hours – reigniting after fire crews thought it was under control – ended with the death of fireman Archie McLay.

The alarm was raised at 4.30pm on November 3 that year, sending fire crews from Central Fire Station racing to what were then the Scottish Television (STV) studios.

Jim Smith, now 71, was then a beltman on a turntable ladder and turned out to the Hope Street fire.

Although the blaze started in the sub-basement of the theatre, 30ft below ground, when crews arrived the building was filled with thick, black smoke.

Jim, who served for 31 years as a firefighter, said: "The STV studios had a team of in-house firefighters but there was only one on that day, and the fire quickly grew out of control.

"He did try to fight it with a fire extinguisher but he was on his own and he just couldn't get on top of it.

"When we arrived there had been an explosion in the sub- basement and everyone scampered out.

"My partner and I entered the building and heard someone moaning. We found a fireman on his hands and knees.

He had tried to make sure everyone else was out and then he followed the line of a hose, which he had assumed would lead him outside to a fire engine but actually took him to a reel attached to a wall.

"We helped him outside and then went back in again."

When the fire took hold 370 employees were evacuated from the building but 15 stayed behind to make sure TV broadcasts were not interrupted.

It was the first day STV had trialed colour television and smoke began pouring into one of the studios during a live broadcast.

A total of 90 firefighters turned up to the building with bosses at the scene deciding to use high expansion foam to fill the basement and extinguish the blaze.

Glasgow was the first city in the UK to adopt the technique, usually used in mine fires, for regular firefighting.

Foam was pumped into the studios at such a rate that fresh supplies had to be brought in from Paisley.

Jim added: "It was a difficult fire to deal with. It became very difficult for fire fighters to operate because a theatre is not straight passages – it's dark, hostile and a complicated layout.

"The fire burned through the night and many were injured.

"At one point crews thought they had got on top of it but it then reignighted."

Shortly before 11pm it became apparent that Station Officer Archie McLay, 35, had not returned from inside the building.

Teams of firemen wearing breathing apparatus were sent back into the theatre, fighting their way through foam 6ft deep to search for their colleague.

Jim was one of the men sent in as part of the search.

He said: "We looked for Archie for hours. When we finally found the body under the stage Archie was on his side, his breathing line having come out of his mouth.

"At some point the trap door on the stage must have been opened and he would have stepped back and disappeared through it.

"The sub-basement was filled with about 6ft of water and he drowned."

Archie, from Allison Street in Govanhill and dad to two young daughters, Margo, then 14, and Irene, then 10, was missing for 20 hours.

Newspaper reports from the time describe firemen bringing out the body, some with tears running down their faces.

Jim added: "Archie was a nice guy.

"We didn't talk too much about things or over analyse them.

"It was a luxury you couldn't afford, to get too maudlin about something that was just part of the job.

"Death was a companion. Not a very welcome one but it was with you all the time. Every fireman's family had that concern, that it would happen to their loved one."

Although Archie's death was tragic some good came from the night he was killed.

His friend, Sub Officer John Jamieson, thought firefighters should carry an alarm that would sound when they were knocked unconscious or overcome by fumes.

During the fire a Firemaster and two other fire officers collapsed from lack of oxygen. John and a colleague heard the men fall and pulled them out.

The incidents persuaded John to develop an alarm – the Strathclyde – which was used by the brigade and earned John the British Empire Medal in 1981.

Firefighters still use an updated version of the alarm, the Bodyguard.

Archie's death is commemorated by a stone plaque outside the theatre – one of 12 stops on the Firefighters' Heritage Trail, to be officially unveiled on Saturday.

Assistant Chief Officer of Strathclyde Fire and Rescue, Lewis Ramsay, said: "The Firefighters' Heritage Trail commemorates a number of brave, courageous firefighters who lost their lives fighting fires across the city. Fires involving multiple public deaths are also included."

Mr Ramsay added: "Looking back, much has changed in the world of firefighting. Having said that, in many regards first principles remain the same.

"Take for example the qualities implicit in a firefighter; tact, gallantry, dexterity, observation, perseverance, loyalty and sympathy.

"Without exception, these attributes are as relevant and important in the 21st Century, as they were hundreds of years ago at the time of some of the fires recorded by the Firefighters' Heritage Trail."