1981: Fatal fire at nurses’ home in Kirkcaldy
One of the most devastating fires in Kirkcaldy’s modern history was at the nurses’ home at Victoria Hospital.
It claimed the life of one young nurse, and left 17 others injured, five seriously, as they hurled mattresses out of broken windows and jumped to escape the thick black smoke which engulfed the building at rapid speed.
The fire led to a major inquiry which ran for months, and time hasn’t diminished the sense of horror from what happened on November 13, 1981.
It was around 1am when fire broke out in the five-storey building at Hayfield Road.
It was home to more than 80 nurses who worked at the Vic.
Twelve fire engines from stations across Fife raced to the scene.
They were joined by two RAF helicopters, sent from Leuchars, to assist by checking the rooftop to see if any nurses had climbed up in a bid to escape.
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Firefighters were on the scene within two minutes but by then the fire had taken hold along the second and third floors.
They were confronted with nurses climbing to the windows, screaming for help.
Fire crews rescued 10 people using a hydraulic platform and turntable, others got out the door, but a number of nurses threw mattresses to the ground and jumped.
Station officer Thomas Williamson, speaking at the scene, said it was one of the worst incidents he had ever witnessed.
“The whole facia of the building was alight with people screaming for rescue,” he said, “Most of these youngsters kept their heads very well indeed, and those who were urged to stay where they were did so in extreme conditions.”
The helicopters took the most badly injured to Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. More followed under police escort.
A 21-year-old nurse, from Letham, lost her life in the blaze which spread with worrying speed.
Messages were sent to discos and other places asking nurses to report for duty, and stories of incredible heroism gradually emerged from a night of frightening drama.
Maria McGregor was the nursing officer on duty in the hospital dining room. She rushed to the scene, went straight into the home and checked the whole of the first floor, alerting nurses to the danger.
Together with police officer Christine Barclay she tried to get to the third floor before the smoke was so dense she had to turn back.
Maria then slipped off on leave to avoid all waiting newspaper and TV reporters. Porter Harry Fitchet heard the alarm and raced to help.
He shouted to nurses to lie on the floor, but, by then, some had started to jump to safety.
“I broke one girl’s fall and tried to catch another,” he said. “They could not get downstairs and, being human, they tried to escape.”
Media reports of panic were swiftly condemned by eyewitnesses, emergency services and union leaders.
Money poured into a disaster fund, set up by health union COHSE and the Royal College of Nursing, to help the victims.
So much was given, organisers reckoned they would be able to offer long term aid to the nurses who suffered.
Tom Cordiner, secretary of the local COHSE branch, said: “Some suffered terrible injuries, and others have endured psychological damage, and the probability is it will take something extra special to make them go back to such a home again.”
The questions raised in the Commons and the calls for a full public inquiry were just the start of a prolonged aftermath from this fatal fire.