500 workmen escape NatWest Tower blaze

JOJO MOYES

and WILL BENNETT

Five hundred workmen were evacuated yesterday when fire broke out on the top floor of the 600ft-high NatWest Tower, the City of London's tallest building, sending a huge cloud of smoke across the capital.

Firefighters, for the first time using a helicopter equipped with thermal imaging equipment to pinpoint the source of the blaze, put out the fire in a glass fibre cooling tower on the 45th floor within 40 minutes. There were no casualties. The cause of the fire is not yet certain but it is thought that workmen restoring the tower, which was badly damaged by an IRA bomb in 1993, may have started the fire with welding equipment. John West, who was working on the floor below where the blaze started, said: "I am not surprised that the fire was as big as it was because there was a lot of rubbish on the floor where it began. Some people are saying it was a disaster waiting to happen, but fortunately no one was hurt." The blaze was the latest episode in the unhappy history of the tower, which was officially opened in 1981 and which was the headquarters of the National Westminster Bank.

It suffered some damage from an IRA bomb in 1992 and was then wrecked by the huge Bishopsgate bomb the following year. Since then it has remained empty except for hundreds of workmen carrying out a pounds 94m repair programme.

In December, the bank announced that it would not move back in when restoration is complete and put the tower up for sale for an estimated pounds 189m. A bank spokesman said restoration work would continue today.

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