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Daniel Holland

Quayside residents in 1am fire alarm terror as elderly struggle to evacuate cladding danger building

There was panic on the Newcastle Quayside in the early hours of Saturday morning after a fire alarm at an apartment block embroiled in a cladding scandal.

Around 150 people had to be evacuated from the St Ann’s Quay building, which has a number of fire safety defects, just after midnight on Saturday.

It is the first time residents have experienced an alert like this since it emerged that the building has a type of cladding similar to the panels that were the primary cause of the rapid spread of the Grenfell Tower fire that killed 72 people.

Fortunately, it turned out to be a false alarm – but it was an “awful” experience for residents, particularly a couple of elderly people who were too ill to leave their homes and would have had to be rescued by firefighters if there had been a blaze.

As well as the aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding which is yet to be removed, St Ann’s Quay also has a number of timber balconies and issues with cavity fire stopping that would help stop a fire from spreading.

Louise Richley, director of the St Ann’s Quay management company, said the distressing night has left her even more “fuming” at the building’s unsafe state.

Ms Richley, who lives in the block and is one of its fire marshals, added: “It was awful. We had one very elderly couple where the wife came down and told me that her husband was seriously ill and could not get out.

“Then there was another issue with someone’s wife who did not feel comfortable coming downstairs because she was unwell too. If there had been a fire, they would have had to be carried out.

“It was midnight, so people would have had maybe only a couple of hours’ sleep. It was very disorientating.

“Someone had a baby who looked to only be a couple of months old, people were running out with massive cages for their pets. And I couldn’t tell them anything about what was happening for about 40 minutes.

“Everyone was desperate to know if there was a fire and I didn’t know either.

“There was a lot of confusion. It’s not like people were running around screaming, but there was huge concern and everyone was worried.”

Four fire engines rushed to the scene on Saturday and the incident lasted around an hour, with Ms Richley saying that the response of the emergency services to what could have been a very serious incident was “brilliant”.

The cause of the alarm going off has not been established, but an investigation has found that there was no fault with the alarm system.

Richie Rickaby, area manager for community safety at Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service, said: “We take all fire alarm calls from residential properties very seriously indeed. In the early hours of Saturday February 27, our control room received a fire alarm alert at 12:13am from St Ann's Quay building in Newcastle.

“Four appliances were in attendance of the scene from 12:19am, and after an extensive search of the property our fire fighters declared the incident as a false alarm with no apparent reason for the activation.

“We advised the building management to contact their alarm technician for the system to be overhauled. These actions were met with no faults being identified. The alarm was declared as being in full working order.”

Last month, housing secretary Robert Jenrick announced a new £3.5 billion fund to remove cladding from high-rise blocks above 18m at no cost to leaseholders.

But St Ann’s Quay residents still face major uncertainty as the building has previously been rejected for government support, potentially leaving each of the 91 flats with a £30,000 bill to cover the essential repairs if no grant funding is made available.

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