London Fire Brigade

Remembering the 1974 Worsley Hotel fire

13 December 2016

The 13 December 2016 marks 42 years since the Worsley Hotel fire in 1974, which tragically resulted in seven people being killed, including a firefighter.  

The blaze, the largest tackled by the Brigade that year, was deliberately started and remains one of the deadliest in the history of UK hotel fires.

The Maida Vale property, which was a series of interconnected four and five storey buildings, was used to house hotel and catering employees.

When the first firefighters arrived at Clifton Gardens, at around 0335, they found people screaming for help from the windows as thick smoke bellowed into the night sky.

'We knew we had a job on'

Colin Searle, a retired firefighter who was the Station Officer at Westminster at the time of the blaze, received the call at 0344.

"It had just been a normal night, nothing out the norm, when our pump and pump escape were called upon," said Colin.

"As we were driving down Park Lane towards the fire, we could see the sky was lit up and that was when we knew we had a job on."

Images © London Fire Brigade

When he reached the scene, Colin and his crew were directed to the back of the hotel and entered the building, however, their progress was soon hampered by the collapse of internal staircases.

As a result, he returned to the front of the hotel and met up with crews from Paddington.  

About an hour into the operation, with firefighters working inside the building to bring the fire under control, a section of the hotel’s roof collapsed in on itself, causing the upper-floors to also give way.

Four firefighters were trapped under the falling rubble: Colin Searle, Tony Stewart, Martin Walker, and Hamish Harry Pettit.

'I didn't actually realise I was being burnt'

Colin said: "Once the dust had settled and I realised I was stuck, it became a rescue operation.

"I was in a bit of pain in my knees – at the time I didn’t actually realise I was being burnt.

"I never thought the worst, I just thought it would be a matter of time before they got us out but of course, I didn’t realise how bad the situation was."

Colin had been trapped by a timber beam, pinning him in a squat position, while flames continued to burn all around him. 

© London Fire Brigade

Firefighters worked in extremely smoky conditions, at times barely able to see the colleagues they were attempting to rescue.

Over the next three hours the firefighters were freed one by one. When Colin was finally rescued, his entire right leg, from ankle to hip, had been badly burnt by the flames that had burned among the rubble.

Hamish Harry Pettit was pronounced dead at scene. He was 26-years-old.

When the stop was made at 0802, 30 fire engines and more than 100 firefighters attended the incident. Exhausted crews had rescued over 50 people, many from perilous positions on windowsills and balconies. 

Edward Mansfield, a kitchen porter, was found guilty of the manslaughter of seven people and of three charges of arson. He was jailed for life in December 1975.

Twenty-two firefighters were commended by Chief Officer Joseph Milner for their actions during the fire; four received theQueen's Gallantry Medals and four received the Queen's commendation for bravery.

News clipping © Facebook \ Bob Wilkinson

Plaque at Paddington Fire Station in memory of Hamish Harry Pettit © Facebook \ Bryan Jones

The fire was serialised in the best-selling book Red Watch, written by the late Gordon Honeycombe.

Ian Pettit, a retired London firefighter and brother of Hamish, said: "We were so close. There was only 17 months between us and so we used to play for the same football team and we’d go out together at night-time.

"The only way I could equate what had happened to him was to do it myself."

After Hamish’s death, Ian applied to the Brigade and joined Chelsea fire station in 1976, aged 24. He served the capital until 2002.