Five feared dead in Cornwall after fire razes seaside hotel

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The Independent Online

Fears were growing last night that the death toll following a devastating "inferno" that tore through a hotel in Newquay could rise after four people remained unaccounted for a day after the blaze.

One man died and five others were taken to hospital after the huge fire in the early hours of yesterday morning left the four-storey Penhallow Hotel in the packed Cornish seaside resort a gutted shell in danger of collapse. Two were in a critical condition. It is thought the dead man was killed by falling or jumping from a second-floor window.

Terrified guests woken in the middle of the night leapt for their lives from windows as the emergency services arrived at the scene, fire crews said. Jan Sturgess, of the Cornwall fire brigade, said most of the guests were elderly. "It was a horrific scene," he added. "Fire crews were faced with a severe fire which rapidly spread. Guests were trying to escape through windows and fire escapes."

One eyewitness, Alan Thomas, 60, said: "The flames were shooting 20ft to 30ft from the top of the roof, there were lots of people outside who had been evacuated who were very distressed."

One guest, Charles Snook, from Richmond in North Yorkshire, added: "I saw someone jump through a window – I just can't describe it, you fight for your life with people you've sort of bonded with for that week. When I got out of the hotel all I could see was flames. It was just an inferno, an absolute inferno."

Asked about the likelihood that the missing people would be found safe, Supt John Green of Devon and Cornwall Police said: "It is fair to say that some time has now elapsed. It may well just be that they found a bed for the night, but as time goes by we are of course concerned."

An investigation has been launched following eye-witness claims that a wooden fire escape was ablaze as guests tried to escape. Questions have also been raised after Cornwall Fire Brigade had to bring a special appliance 50 miles from Plymouth to the blaze. The brigade said two extendable platforms were out of action.

More than 100 firefighters and 23 engines were sent to the seafront hotel after a member of staff called 999 at 12.17am. Devon and Cornwall Police said 86 residents were evacuated from the hotel as well as guests and staff in two adjoining hotels after the flames spread under the roof. A search of the hotel for other casualties and the cause of the fire yesterday could not be carried out until workmen had demolished the remains of the building to make them safe, fire chief Mart Littmoden said.

Cornwall's deputy chief fire officer, Ted Simpson, said the roof of the hotel had been destroyed and all the floors had collapsed as a result of the fire, rather than due to water damage.

Supt Green praised the spirit of other hoteliers who helped guests after the fire. "The other hoteliers opened their doors and literally put the kettle on," he said. "It shows the spirit of the people last night."

The Penhallow Hotel is owned by Holdsworth Hotels, which also has hotels in Torquay, Eastbourne and the Isle of Wight. It is part of the Robinsons Holidays group, based in Blackburn, Lancashire. A company spokesman said: "We know there were at least 86 people in the hotel who were with a Robinsons coach holiday. Robinsons do use the hotel a lot. It caters for the more mature passenger, largely from the north and north-west of England.

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