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Jimmy Chung’s restaurant fire engulfed Aberdeen promenade and wreaked devastation

Firefighters worked for hours to deal with the serious blaze at Jimmy Chung's in Aberdeen in 2014.
Firefighters worked for hours to deal with the serious blaze at Jimmy Chung's in Aberdeen in 2014.

It was like a scene from a disaster movie when firefighters arrived in droves to tackle an inferno on Aberdeen’s beach promenade in 2014.

The conflagration, which erupted when flames tore through Jimmy Chung’s restaurant on the esplanade, could be witnessed miles away and it took more than 60 firefighters around nine hours to get the blaze under control after the incident started in the Chinese buffet and spread to three other properties.

The smell of burning was discernible on the morning of February 20 and, when I visited the beach area, there was a mixture of shock among those who had witnessed their businesses being destroyed and relief from others in the area who feared their retail outlets might also be caught up in the fire’s path.

Firefighters tackled a major blaze at Jimmy Chung’s restaurant on the beach esplanade in Aberdeen in 2014.

Aberdeen City Council subsequently issued a demolition warrant at the end of April, which was the catalyst for the demolition of the wreckage of Jimmy Chung’s restaurant, the Pier Bistro, The Captain’s Table and ADS Janitorial.

But, without the remarkable efforts and professionalism of the people who rushed to the scene at 4.20am and dealt with the inferno, it could have been so much worse – and that’s one of the reasons why so many of us across the globe will celebrate the upcoming International Firefighters Day on May 4.

The flames could be spotted for miles during the blaze on Aberdeen promenade in 2014. Pic: Kenny Elrick.

Those who work in the fire service are often tasked with challenging situations in the worst possible circumstances but, mercifully, the esplanade and the different premises were empty when the blaze broke out.

Destruction spread from Jimmy Chung’s fire

Yet, as they battled assiduously to control the damage, there was no swift end in sight and when the public and press witnessed the scene as they travelled to work, the sight of Cadona’s funfair so close to the flames was a reminder of how the destruction had spread from its original spark in Jimmy Chung’s.

Martin Vicca, the manager of the popular Inversnecky Cafe, is renowned in Aberdeen for his witty board signs and often excruciating puns.

But he wasn’t remotely in the mood for laughter when he arrived at the site and tried to discover what had happened, amid clouds of thick smoke.

The scene on the beach esplanade in 2014 where firefighters tackled a blaze in Jimmy Chung’s restaurant.

He told The Press And Journal: “My initial worry was it was actually the cafe that was on fire – and from where I was, I couldn’t tell if it was them (Jimmy Chung’s) or ourselves. I came back at around 2pm to discover that the fire had been doused, but the road was still cut off.

“I was taken in by one of the firefighters to check on my property. At that point, all power and gas had been cut off to the properties for safety.

“The road itself was closed to traffic for about a week and that had some effect, but then a lot of people came down to see what was going on.

Firefighters ‘deserve all our respect’

“The long-term effect was that it removed two businesses from the front [The Pier later re-opened], but for about the next nine months, we had a real mess of the fire-damaged buildings sitting there. Even though it was behind screens and behind boarding, it was still very obvious and quite unsightly.

“But, without the efforts of the emergency services and the firefighters, who knows how bad this might have been? They worked for hours in difficult circumstances to extinguish the blaze and they deserve all our respect.”

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service confirmed that smoke had spread to adjacent buildings in the windy conditions, which exacerbated their problems.

But, despite the intensity of the heat and the risk that the blaze could grow in magnitude, there was no trace of panic about the fashion in which the SFRS staff went about containing and then gradually, methodically, putting it out.

No wonder area commander Andy Coueslant said he was ” impressed with the hard work and professionalism of the crews in challenging conditions.”

Firefighters did what they could, but the damage was extensive in February 2014.

Jimmy Chung’s never opened again in Aberdeen and the Pier Bistro was the only business affected by the fire to reopen on the beach esplanade.

The Aberdeen fire service control room was controversially closed in 2016, prompting concerns from north-east politicians about loss of local knowledge.

Some members of its staff moved to the new North Operations Control facility in Dundee, where they are continuing to provide their technical skills, resourcefulness and bravery in combating blazes of all types.

Memories of another major blaze

But those who have remained in Aberdeen City and Shire, whether full-time staff or retained firefighters, are still held in high esteem by the public.

And that was as true in 2014 as it was in 1971 when nearby Pittodrie was affected in another major incident which nearly destroyed the stadium.

A serious fire almost destroyed Pittodrie early in 1971.

Within minutes of the conflagration breaking out in the Main Stand on February 5 and creating a different and unwanted version of the Northern Lights in the sky, several appliances from King Street and Anderson Drive were at the scene and dealing with a major incident.

The fire master, John Donnachie, immediately recognised the severity of the situation and he and his colleagues responded, even as club secretary Bert Whyte arrived at the ground and relayed the message that the Scottish Cup – a prized trophy which was already 98 years old – was in the club boardroom.

‘It looked as though a stick of bombs had hit the place’

It was, of course, just a piece of metal, but it helped that Mr Donnachie was not only a seasoned firefighter, but a devoted Dons supporter, who was cognisant with the layout of the stadium and he rapidly devised a way of retrieving the Cup, even as thick smoke was billowing from the boardroom.

The Scottish Cup was saved from the flames by John Donnachie in February 1971.

He said later: “We had to break the windows on Pittodrie Street, so I could put two men into the building.

“They felt their way through the smoke to the glass case and handed out all the trophies, with the Scottish Cup first. They were safe.”

However, as dawn broke on the morning of Saturday February 6, the significant scale of the damage became all too evident. The Aberdeen manager, Eddie Turnbull, surveyed the scene and said: “There was no loss of life, which was by far the priority with something like this, but the dressing rooms were destroyed as well as many seats in the stand.

“In the morning light, it looked as though a stick of bombs had hit the place.”

Aberdeen players witness the damage caused by the Pittodrie fire in 1971.

Dons chairman Dick Donald arrived at Pittodrie not long after the fire had started and, unsurprisingly, it left him feeling concerned and dispirited.

He said: “The loss of everything is a big blow and we may never know how it happened. The last person here was at 5pm last night. It could not have been an electrical fault, because we have safety switches in place.”

A phoenix rose from the ashes

Yet, despite all the problems, he and his colleagues soon invested in a major refurbishment of the premises: one which restored it to its former glory.

The Press and Journal reported on the restoration programme on September 29 with the words: “Since the fire happened, a renovated Pittodrie, hailed as the finest ground outside Glasgow, is rising steadily out of the ashes at a cost of around £140,000. The centre stand has been restored with brown and red tip-up seats and the new Paddock at the King Street end is now in operation.”

Three of the firemen, John Donnachie, Jim Reid and Bob McBeath, who saved the Scottish Cup.

The club also expressed their debt to John Donnachie and his colleagues who had worked together for many hours throughout the night to prevent more extensive and widespread problems at the ground.

And, 20 years later in 1991, Mr Donnachie, Bob McBeath and Jim Reid were reunited at Pittodrie and pictured with the Scottish Cup which they and others had prevented from being turned into a melted mass of metal.

Without their exertions, there might not have been anything left to rebuild.

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