Oban fire: 'I've spent five decades trying to forget hotel blaze'

Ten tourists died when huge fire ripped through the Argyll town's Esplanade hotel 50 years ago today.

Donald Malloch has spent the last five decades trying to forget the huge blaze that ripped through the Esplanade hotel in Oban.

But that has proven to be a difficult task.

The former firefighter lives in a property next to the former hotel, which is now holiday rental apartments, and is constantly reminded of the huge blaze that he helped tackle on this day 50 years ago.

The fire remains the worst Scottish hotel blaze since the Second World War. Ten tourists visiting the Highlands lost their lives in the inferno on July 24, 1973.

Mr Malloch, the lead firefighter at the time of the blaze, told STV News: “Every time I go to the shops and head up the lane, I pass by what used to be the back of the hotel where I was working that night.”

It is thought a discarded cigarette sparked the early morning blaze. A sailor on a yacht in the bay spotted flames spreading through the seaside hotel.

He sounded a foghorn to raise the alarm. Many guests were trapped, with some clinging to window ledges when rescuers first arrived.

Hotel guests were evacuated during the fire.Mirrorpix / Contributor via Getty Images

For the part-time firefighters of Oban, the blaze was unlike anything they had ever seen before.

Mr Malloch, a retired mechanic who is now 84, said: “We had never been prepared for anything on that scale.

“We had plenty of drills but you never expect to see a fire as big as that. It was mind-boggling. It was just so fierce by the time we arrived that we couldn’t go into the building. 

“You have to remember the equipment we were using was very different to now.“

Nine people in a party of tourists from Cornwall, Devon and Somerset lost their lives in the hotel. Another died in hospital after leaping from a window.

Tourist bus leaving Oban with empty seats at the back.Mirrorpix / Contributor via Getty Images

One particular memory that remains at the forefront of Mr Malloch’s mind is the ladder snapping while he was making his way down to ground level with a guest.

“When they were moving down the ladder, the woman actually passed out and her legs went through the rungs of the ladder,” he said.

“Jacky (colleague) had to just hold her in. I went up to help him and we managed to lift her out of the rungs but then we started to come down. The next thing there was a crack and the ladder went over.

“When I got helped out from the ladder, I just carried on. I think it was adrenaline, I just wanted to keep going.

Donald Malloch.STV News

“It’s hard to say but I do believe if we had been there sooner, we might have been able to do more. By the time we arrived the fire was well alight. Time would have helped.“ 

At the time of the fire, there was a part-time retained fire service in operation.

For the Esplanade fire, there was a delay in the fire brigade being called out. In those days, 999 calls went to telephone exchange and then onto police. They initially thought it was a hoax and went on foot to check. It was around 30 mins before the service was alerted.

‘Seeing the blaze encouraged me to join the fire service’

George Berry couldn’t believe what he was seeing as a 17-year-old teenager from Oban.

But what he saw inspired him to join the fire service. 

Mr Berry was sleeping when he got a call from a friend to say the Esplanade hotel was on fire. He quickly got dressed and ran to the scene.

“I could smell the burning,” he told STV News. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It’s a feeling I will never forget. When I walked along, there were that many people trying to help so I just joined in where I could.

“It was a fire service effort but also a public effort. People had lines of hoses aimed onto the front of the hotel.

“The firefighters even had a portable pump taking water from the sea, putting it directly onto the fire.“

George Berry.STV News

Mr Berry had just put in an application to join the fire service at the time of the fire. Now aged 67, he went on to enjoy a successful career with Western Area and Strathclyde Fire Brigade.

He added: “It took that fire in my opinion to make huge changes, even in the structure of firefighting here.

“The boys in Oban were up against it straight away because they only had two fire engines. The next one was an hour away at Inveraray. The next one to the south was Lochgilphead. An hour is a long time to wait for back-up but the fire service now has greatly improved.

“When I stay somewhere, I put my bags in the room and the next thing I do is check how I find my way out in the night if something happens. Just take that five minutes to take a look because that five minutes could be the thing that saves your life.

“I know how I felt out on the street, I felt dreadful. But the firefighters worked themselves into the ground that day. For those guys alone, people should never forget. They will take it with them when they go, they have imprinted in their heads the terrible scenes that they saw.“

Fire helped speed up new regulations

The Esplanade blaze helped to speed up the implementation of new fire regulations.

The morning after the blaze, hotel owner Ian Nicholson urged every hotelier to carry out fire safety recommendations immediately – regardless of the cost or upheaval.  

A fatal accident inquiry later found no fault or negligence.  

Fire at the Esplanade Hotel, Oban, July 24th 1973. Getty Images

Historian Leslie Mutch explained: “At the time of the fire of the esplanade hotel in July 1973, the recommendations had not been put in place.

“Mr Nicholson’s aim had been to do the work in the closed season from September onwards but the tragic fire occurred just weeks beforehand.

“Technology is progressing all the time, with things like oils, plastics and hydrocarbons, there is always fire risk. We are always learning and sometimes its learning from tragedies.”

On Monday morning, a service will be held at Oban fire station to remember those who lost their lives.

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