Children escape from fire at Highbury leisure centre
Quick-thinking teachers and staff praised as fire rips through pool during swimming lesson, but deaf pupils lose hearing aids and uniforms
28 September, 2018 — By Emily Finch
Pupils with teachers Harun Heidari, left, and Fortunato Licata, who said: ‘There was a real community spirit shown, with members of the public helping unwrap foil blankets for the children.’
Schoolchildren lost hearing aids and uniforms in a devastating fire at Highbury Leisure Centre, but managed to escape with their lives thanks to quick-thinking teachers.
Twenty-seven pupils from Laycock Primary School were finishing their morning swimming lesson at Highbury Leisure Centre, in Highbury Crescent, on Tuesday when teacher Fortunato Licata heard the fire alarm.
The Year 3 class were quickly rushed out of the building while still wear- ing their swimming costumes.
“The children were very calm and well- behaved,” Mr Licata said. “The staff at the pool were very professional and organised. There was a real community spirit shown, with members of the public helping unwrap foil blankets for the children.”
The Highbury school specialises in teaching children with hearing impairment. Some pupils lost hearing aids in the fire, along with uniforms and homework.
Mr Licata said that when the alarm sounded a few members of the pub- lic in the changing room seemed to think it might be a drill.
“I told them: ‘Get out now.’ I couldn’t smell any smoke, but when I doubled back while we were leaving to check we had- n’t left anyone behind I saw smoke coming from the roof,” he said.
He quickly notified colleagues at the school in Laycock Road and walked his pupils the short distance back to their classrooms, where they were promptly clothed in uniforms from lost property.
Headteacher Emmanuel Keteku praised his staff along with the pupils aged eight to nine.
“When the children popped in they looked like Christmas trees in their silver foil,” he said. “They were quite excited about it. They were very brave. Our staff got them out very, very quickly and took them to safety. From the school’s perspective it was handled very efficiently. They were not in any danger.”
He added that staff at the council-owned pool, managed by leisure giant Greenwich Leisure Limit- ed (GLL), “were amazing”.
“They sprang into life and the kids were their number one priority,” he said. “It was all done calmly, without panic. They kept everyone informed as best they could.”
Hearing aids lost in the fire should be covered by insurance, he added, while children are being allowed to wear their own clothes until uniforms are replaced.
London Fire Brigade had 12 fire engines and 80 firefighters tackling the noon blaze, which was “under control” at 2.47pm.
The smoke was seen from miles away and Highbury and Islington station was temporarily closed, with cars prevent- ed from entering nearby roads.
Islington Council leader Councillor Richard Watts said: “It was heartbreak- ing to see the extensive damage to the leisure centre, but we are committed to rebuilding this valuable and well-loved community asset.
“I would like to pay tribute to the quick reactions and professionalism of everyone involved in dealing with this emergency, including the Union Chapel, where we set up a rest centre for those who had to be evacuated.”
The fire brigade said they believed the fire was started by “hot works being carried out on the roof”.
GLL, based in Woolwich, finished a £2.5mil- lion makeover at the centre in February. As reported in the Tribune, residents said the build- ing did not match plans approved by the Town Hall which were agreed with residents. The leisure giant promised “to resolve outstanding issues relating to the exterior of the building”.
A spokesman for GLL confirmed work was being carried out on the building at the time of the fire.
The spokesman said: “Our fire evacuation plan ensured all customers and staff were evacuated swiftly and safely. The building was empty with- in 90 seconds of the alarm being raised.
“At the time of the fire, repair works were being completed on the roof of the centre. We are work- ing closely with Islington Council and its insurers to investigate the cause of the fire and assess the extent of damage. While the centre is closed, Better members can use any of our alternative facilities in Islington or further afield.
“We would like to thank the professionalism of our staff and that of the firefighters, other emergency services and the council in dealing with the incident and ensuring the welfare of our customers.”