'It was like something out of WW2' - Rescuers tell of desperate search for survivors of Guthrie Street blast

On the morning of October 4, 1989, 41-year-old Colin Foster was in the car on the way to work at the Research and Development Office of the Fire Service when the call came over the radio that there had been a major incident on Guthrie Street.

By Elsa Maishman
Friday, 4th October 2019, 2:06 pm
Martin Baptie in 1990, with firemen who rescued him the year before.
Martin Baptie in 1990, with firemen who rescued him the year before.

His boss was also in the car, and radioed to control that Mr Foster had a pioneering new piece of technology in the car with them: a thermal imaging device, one of the only ones in Scotland at that time.

The device did not belong to the Fire Service, but was on loan for research purposes for a couple of weeks.

Mr Foster was sent straight to the scene of what turned out to be a major gas explosion, where he was among the first rescuers to arrive.

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Wreckage of the blast. The fireman in a light-coloured jacket at the top of the ladder is Colin Foster, who used thermal imaging to search the rubble.

“I saw three walls still standing and a huge pile of debris,” he said.

A turntable ladder was set up and Mr Foster was sent up to the top of the pile of debris, while the gas was still leaking.

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He directed his new-fangled device at the rubble in desperate search of survivors.

After a short time he detected a heat source and summoned more crew to locate it.

But what they found was the first casualty, Nicola Donnelly.

Mr Foster then went into the pile of debris itself to search again with a colleague, Raymond Gibb, and found an empty space which led to the discovery of the second casualty, Peter Small.

Then Mr Foster went back on to the pile of debris, desperate to keep searching.

But after a while the Fire Master, Peter Scott, ordered Mr Foster off the pile.

He came down ‘reluctantly’, not understanding why he was being called away from his task, and was told to go across the road the the Cowgate Centre.

“I looked back at the building and the roof was hanging there by memory, it was ready to go at any time,” said Mr Foster.

“When I was up there I had been entirely focused on doing the scan, and being careful not to tread on wood or nails. At no time did I think of looking up at the roof.”

It was only when Mr Foster stepped away from the scene that he realised how big the explosion had been.

"It was like something out of the Second World War," he said.

'Really hard decision'

Jimmy Campbell, a 34-year-old firefighter performing media relations on the day, said the Fire Master faced a ‘really hard’ decision to pull the crews out due to the risk of the roof collapsing.

“The atmosphere was really tense,” he said.

“The courage of firefighters working under that roof was exemplary,” he added.

Up to 70 firefighters attended the scene, where they continued to search for survivors.

Rescuers eventually found Martin Baptie, still in his bed, and managed to pull him out of the rubble alive.

Mike Herriot, then 30, was one of the first paramedics on the scene.

He was called in from Livingston, and sent into the rubble where Martin Baptie had been found while still wearing his District Ambulance Officer uniform of a suit and tie.

"Access to him was very difficult, to say the least," he said.

"There was a ton of debris, bricks, rocks, beams and dust. The area was clearly unstable, but you got used to taking a higher level of risk in those days."

Not everyone who lived in the block had been accounted for, so rescuers continued to search for other survivors.

"Time was ticking away, it drove everyone to keep searching," said Mr Herriot.

"Paramedics never want to leave the scene when they don't have a patient and can't do their job. We wanted to see the incident right through."

"You never, ever give up hope. That's part of the fire service psyche," added Mr Campbell.

Eventually it became clear that no more survivors lay beneath the rubble, and the rest of the building was safely demolished.

Bizarre coincidence

In a striking coincidence, the fire brigade had put a new major incident action plan into force just hours before the incident.

"It came in at midnight, and we never dreamed we would need it just seven hours later. It was quite a coincidence, but it was a blessing," said Mr Campbell.

"The whole Command and Control structure had changed, everyone had set roles. It was much more professional, and safer too," said Steve Torrie, Command and Control Officer at the time.

Mr Foster went on to serve 34 years in the fire brigade, while Mr Campbell served 37, and Mr Torrie 40. Mr Herriot served 42 years in the ambulance service.

"Whenever I go up Guthrie Street I still think about it," Mr Herriot said.

"The majority of people probably aren't aware it happened. It's the same all over Edinburgh, people live and die and get saved and after a few years it all gets forgotten about."