Tributes to firefighters killed by tower blaze

Fire that devastated block of flats raged out of control, say witnesses

Two firefighters killed when a tower block fire raged "completely out of control" were hailed for their bravery yesterday amid calls for an official explanation of the cause of the blaze.

James Shears, 35, and Alan Bannon, 38, died as they attempted to tackle the fire at Shirley Towers, a 15-storey pair of buildings in Southampton.

John Bonney, Hampshire Chief Fire Officer, said the firemen had been "valiant" in "extremely difficult circumstances" but declined to give details of how they died.

Mr Shears had been with the service just under seven years; Mr Bannon for eight and a half years.

The fire broke out on Tuesday evening on the ninth floor, in the home of a single mother and her two children. More than 20 fire rescue teams fought the fire for more than four hours, with smoke and flames spreading between the fifth and 10th floors.

Two firefighters were treated in hospital for burns.

The residents were taken to safety. Most were due to be allowed home yesterday but some were to remain in a hotel.

Nine months ago a blaze in a similar block in Camberwell, south London, killed six people and led to a tightening of safety measures in residential council buildings.

Eyewitnesses suggested that a ceiling and staircase had collapsed inside Shirley Towers as the blaze spread from Flat 72, where it had originated.

Kristina Baldacchino, who witnessed the incident from a nearby pub, said: "Within an hour it was ripping through the entire block. It was a complete inferno and seemed to have gone completely out of control."

Charlie Le Marechal, 22, who was on the sixth floor when the fire started, saw "flames coming out" of the floor above: "We saw glass falling from the flat on fire and down below we saw fire engines everywhere, ambulances and police."

Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service would not be drawn on the cause of the fire, saying that a joint investigation with police was underway.

In 2002, two men fell to their deaths at Shirley Towers after apparently slamming into lift doors during a fight, prompting them to spring open. The incident led to complaints about poor maintenance.

The numbers of firefighters killed in service each year usually ranges between one and three. In 2007, four died tackling a blaze at a packing plant at Atherstone-on-Stour, the single worst loss of life at the service in 35 years.

Since the end of the Second World War, more than 300 firefighters have been killed on active duty. Their names, together with those of every firefighter killed in Britain during the war, are inscribed on a bronze memorial on the south side of St Paul's Cathedral.

Mr Bonney said the dead men's colleagues were "devastated".

"This is not only a devastating loss to our service, but is a loss to the whole fire service community. During these incredibly difficult circumstances, firefighters undertook the successful evacuation and rescue of a number of people. Their professionalism, under truly difficult conditions, has been admirable and a testament to our service," he said.