The Redcar steelworks dominates the town’s skyline, towering above the people who stroll along the beach – as it has done since it was founded in 1917.
But anyone walking there on 19 September would have witnessed a spectacle that would have created a sense of dread for an area “built on steel”.
A huge plume of black smoke billowed up over the sand dunes and out across the North Sea as the “blow down” process to shut down the second-biggest blast furnace in Europe came to an end.
The announcement on Friday by the plant’s owners, SSI, that it was pausing production because of problems with the supply of raw materials has left 3,000 workers and contractors waiting to hear if they will lose their jobs.
The workers fear they will run out of coal this week and will have to switch off the plant’s coke ovens – a move that will in effect mark the death of the site after almost 100 years as it would cause “catastrophic damage” that would cost millions of pounds to repair.
These are frightening days for the Teesside town which provided the steel for the Tyne Bridge and the Angel of the North; 9,000 local jobs rely on the steelworks and unemployment among men of working age is already 10 per cent.
“Most people who work there live locally,” says Brian Dennis, 49, a supervisor who has worked at the plant for 26 years. “It was drummed into us at school that engineering was a job for life. But shipbuilding has gone and steel working is all that’s left.
“If the plant goes, it will have major consequences for everyone. People will have to go out of the area to find work. There’ll be nothing left.”
Those worried about the future include Zoe Burey, 23, whose husband, father and brother all work at the plant. She has launched a Facebook campaign to keep it open, while putting plans to buy a house on hold as she and husband, Carl, wait for news.
“A lot of young families and older generations have connections to the plant,” Ms Burey said. “So many people depend on it to survive. It’s scary to think about what could happen.”
Shopkeepers in the town, which is home to the oldest surviving lifeboat and a chip shop that opened in 1897, are also worried. M&S pulled out of Redcar last autumn after 76 years and there are concerns for the future of the high street. Sally Cope at Eileen’s greengrocers said: “The steelworks is part of the North-east’s identity. If it closes, Redcar will be like a ghost town. There’s already too much unemployment here.”
Redcar’s Labour MP, Anna Turley, added: “This whole area is built on steel. Everyone has family members who work there. Fathers and grandfathers worked there. It’s the heart of the community. If the site closes, it will be devastating for Redcar. We are at one minute to midnight and unless action is taken immediately, it will be the end.”
But while the future of the plant is the only talking point in Redcar, unions say they have been met with a “wall of silence” from the Thai-owned SSI, which took over the site from Tata Steel in 2012.
Union leaders have called on the firm and on government ministers to take immediate action to secure the plant’s future. But Whitehall says the steel industry is subject to strict state aid rules that prohibit a rescue.
Roy Rickhuss, general secretary of the Community union, which represents much of the workforce, said: “The livelihoods of thousands of families and an entire community depend on the actions taken by SSI and [ministers] in the coming hours and days. If the silence and inaction doesn’t end soon it may prove too late to save our steel.”
But it is already too late for the 150 workers at Redcar’s South Bank coke ovens, a sister site which was mothballed at the weekend.
Mike Gilbert, 51, who worked at South Bank for more than three decades, was one of scores of workers who gathered at midnight on Saturday to see the symbolic final batch of coke being pushed through the ovens. “I’ve worked there for over 31 year and I’ve literally shed blood, sweat and tears,” Mr Gilbert said. “Watching the last batch of coke being pushed was something I never thought I would see in my lifetime. I watched grown men cry. But the old girl has gone now and we’ve had to watch her die.”
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