FIRE crews suspect a massive blaze at a former college was started deliberately.
Flames licked the air and plumes of smoke filled could be seen for miles around as Sunderland College’s former Shiney Row centre caught ablaze on Easter Monday.
An investigation involving police, fire fighters and college bosses is under way – but fire crews’ early suspicion was that the fire began due to “malicious ignition.”
More than 30 firefighters were dispatched with specialist equipment after the blaze at the building on Success Road just before 6.30pm.
Crews from Rainton Bridge, North Moor, Washington and Sunderland Central were called to the scene, while Newcastle Central’s decontamination unit and an aerial ladder platform from Fulwell were dispatched to get the blaze under control.
Group manager John Allison, who is based at Sunderland Central Station, said there was a fear the building could collapse on crews if they entered the building to tackle the blaze.
“The first appliance found an unoccupied area of the building well alight and it was difficult to access, so we called for the aerial ladder platform and we used that as a water tower and just fought the fire from outside the building,” he said.
“We were informed there might be the potential for asbestos in the building, so we invoked the procedures for dealing with that and called in the decontamination unit from Newcastle.
“We couldn’t put firefighters in because we thought the building could collapse.”
Mr Allison said the battle to bring the fire under control under a difficult to access area of the site was made even tougher when concerns were raised about whether the building contained asbestos, with a special decontamination unit drafted in to ensure firefighters were not put at risk.
The fire was also deemed too ferocious and in a vulnerable location due to the dereliction of the teaching block, leading to fears the structure could collapse, with an aerial ladder platform used to create a water tower so the flames could be fought from a distance.
The flicker of flames could still be seen from the building as hotspots continued to burn after most of the fire had been extinguished.
College bosses, who were on the scene, said they did not wish to comment so soon after the fire.
They are due to join police and the fire service in investigating the cause of the fire today.
Neighbours to the former campus in Success Road, which has been closed for six months, watched on as the fire took hold.
Stephen Stabler, 49, from Bradwell Way, was working in his garden after his sales shift when he spotted the incident.
“I was cutting the grass and I could hear a house alarm going off, then that stopped and I started to see the grey smoke and that developed into black smoke and the fire engines turned up,” he said.
“We could see blue flashing lights and a lot of people came to have a look parked up on the grass verge which made it hard for the other engines to get passed.”
Lorraine Crowther, 45, returned home to Bradwell Way with partner John Vasey, 54, after they had spent the day on their motorbike in Wensleydale.
She said: “I we got back, I found text messages from my friends saying that the college was on fire and asking if I was safe.
“When we came around the corner we could see it.
“The policeman stopped us and asked where we were going and said we lived here and explained there had been a big fire and my heart sank.
“I saw all the blue lights and the firemen and watched as they worked and saw the flames coming off it when I went and looked from top windows of the house.”
Arthur Smith, 59, who works in technical sales, lives in Fowler Close.
He said: “I saw it from my window and saw the big pall of black smoke going up.
“I thought it was further into Shiney Row and came down like a lot of people did and there were cars all along here, then the firefighters arrived.
“It was going well, you could see it coming from the roof.”
A spokesman for Northumbria Police said: “Officers are in the Shiney Row area carrying out patrols and managing local traffic. Police will remain in the area for rest of the evening.”
The college centre has been closed for about a year, with plans in place to bulldoze the site to make way for hundreds of new homes.
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