Hundreds of shoppers were evacuated from Fishergate Shopping Centre on Thursday and a bomb disposal team raced to scene after a man ignited the device in a toilet cubical.
And John Taylor, who has spent 19 years in Lancashire Fire Service, says if the device hadn’t been extinguished by a member of the public, it could have been a “major disaster”.
He said: “All major disasters have small beginnings. We’ve had lots of major fires start from incidents like this and it isn’t an overreaction to say this could have caused a number of deaths.
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Fires by themselves can spread and especially in this scenario if it had been left unattended, it could have caused a major disaster. If you then factor in the two explosive devices, it would only have accelerated the impact. The fire could have risen and smoke would have engulfed people in the shopping centre and that’s often how people die rather than the fire itself.”
The device was made from an asthma inhaler, a firelighter and matches wrapped in paper and set alight on a toilet seat. Police have released CCTV footage of the man they would like to speak to. He is seen walking up the escalator in nearby shopping centre, St George’s, 40 minutes before the device went off. The man was wearing a dark jacket, a dark hat, jeans and dark gloves and carrying a plastic bag.
Mr Taylor said it had the potential to be as big as a 1995 disaster in Blackpool, when Foxhall Market, another indoor shopping centre, went up in flames after a child flicked a firelighter setting it alight.
Nearly 100 firefighters were needed to quell the blaze that day with several buildings engulfed and two firefighters injured by the huge fire near Blackpool’s Golden Mile.
Mr Taylor said: “That was an example of how a fire can spread from a small start. It’s difficult to say what explosive impact a firelighter can have but that incident shows the devastating aftermath it can lead to. This could have been formidable because someone has maliciously gone out to hurt people or damage property. This was definitely not an overreaction by anyone involved. Evacuating the centre was exactly the right thing to do. Everywhere has to be searched not only for other devices but to rescue anyone still in the building. You have to be thorough so no-one is at risk. This could have been so much worse because people could have been killed or property destroyed. Luckily it was stopped before anything major began.”