Gillingham Firefighting Display Disaster
In Gillingham Park on July 11th 1929 what should have been a carefully staged late evening dramatisation of fire and rescue work turned into a tragic example of how fast flames spread and to what deadly effect.
As part of an annual fete in Gillingham the local fire brigade, helped by sea scouts and naval cadets, put on a comic-dramatic demonstration of the brigade’s skills. A canvas and wood ‘house’ three storeys high was built, into which a newly-wed couple - husband and wife both played by firemen – and their guests, played by other firemen and the boys, would repair for their mock reception. The drill was that smoke bombs would then simulate a fire, prompting the arrival of other firemen to bring those inside out. When the building was safely emptied a real fire was set, and the fire-fighting equipment already to hand would be used to combat the flames.
This was a well-established routine used at the fete in preceding years, but this time it went horribly wrong. The fire on the ground floor rather than the smoke bombs was set off with nine boys, the ‘happy couple’ and another couple of guests in the upper storeys of the structure. At first their screams and the flames licking from windows were taken as good acting and better effects, then it was realised what had happened. A searchlight directed at the house showed some boys leaping from the top to their deaths, others on fire. One fireman ran into the building trying to rescue children caught inside, but perished with them. Fire-ladders thrown against the walls themselves burned, and even with the hoses ready nearby it was too late to make any difference to the outcome.
All nine boys died, the youngest Leonard Searles just 10, the oldest 14, along with five firemen and a naval petty officer helping with fund-raising on the day. Many of the parents of the victims were in the crowd watching the event. In a tragic irony those who escaped the flames and clung to life for a few hours or days afterwards before expiring were taken to the hospital for which they had been raising funds.
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