AN investigation was being carried out yesterday into the cause of a fierce blaze which ripped through a former school in Northumberland.
The fire at the abandoned St John’s RC First School, in Alnwick, sent a huge plume of thick, black smoke billowing hundreds of feet into the sky on Saturday afternoon.
The smoke could be seen from many miles away and large numbers of townspeople and visitors gathered nearby in a bid to find out what was happening.
More than 20 firefighters from four separate fire stations took about three hours to bring the blaze under control, and managed to stop it from engulfing the whole of the empty building.
Yesterday Northumbria Police forensic officers and specialist investigators from the Northumberland fire and rescue service were at the scene in a bid to establish what started it.
The school has been empty for several months since it relocated to the town’s former Sisters of Mercy Convent School in South Road as part of a shake-up of Roman Catholic education.
Emergency services were alerted just before 3pm on Saturday and fire crews from Alnwick and Amble arrived to find the buildings well alight with flames and smoke pouring out.
Further crews arrived from Rothbury and Seahouses and police cordoned off the area, near Lisburn Street, because of concerns the huge plume of smoke could contain asbestos from the blazing school.
The fire was brought under control and put out by about 5pm but firefighters continued damping down operations and checks on the site until 9am yesterday.
Station manager Danny Stephenson, who is based at the Northumberland brigade HQ in West Hartford near Cramlington, was part of the firefighting operation.
He said: “The school was well alight when we got there and I could see the plume of smoke from Widdrington as I travelled to the scene. It was hundreds of feet up in the air. The main problem we had was that we didn’t know whether there was asbestos in the buildings, so that hampered the firefighting operation and meant we had to tackle it from outside.
“The crews did well and managed to save a large part of the building. The main damage was confined to the hall and adjacent classrooms, but others were saved.
“The fire investigation team is up there today, working with scene of crimes officers from Northumbria Police. It was difficult for us to tell where the fire had started because almost half of the building was alight when we got there. There was nothing immediately obvious to suggest a cause.”
Northumbria Police said the former school had been severely damaged in the blaze.
The spokeswoman said: “There was no danger to any residents as smoke was blowing away from residential areas.
“Investigators are at the scene today, to attempt to establish a cause of the fire, and inquiries are ongoing.
Any witnesses, or anyone with information, is asked to contact police on 0345 604 3043 ext 69191.”