On Friday 15 November at around 20:30, a fire spread rapidly through the top floors of the privately owned and managed Cube apartment complex in Bolton town centre. Of the 220 occupants of the six storey complex, consisting of two buildings, Phase 1 and Phase 2.
213 were students studying at the University of Bolton. The fire started in and caused damage to the Phase 2 building, which is situated behind Phase 1. Firefighters from stations across the region attended, with the first crew arriving within four minutes.
Student ambassadors at The Cube, Jude Esan and Kate Farren, along with other residents, including Leah McKee-Hearne and Nicky Peaker, ran from floor to floor alerting students. Ansh Sachdeva, the University’s SU president, was on the scene quickly assisting students who had fled from the building. During the course of the evening around 200 firefighters and 40 appliances fought the huge blaze.
At least one resident was lifted from a balcony on the upper floors of the burning building as the flames spread. All occupants were safely evacuated and two students were treated at the scene for minor injuries. No casualties were taken to hospital.
Professor George E Holmes DL, President and Vice Chancellor of the University of Bolton, was notified within minutes of the fire starting and immediately launched the University’s Critical Incident Plan. He said: “All emergency services were spectacularly effective. Lives were undoubtedly saved by the rapid response.” Professor Holmes nominated the Orlando Village official student Halls of Residence as ‘initial headquarters’ to assist distressed students. Staff and SU personnel at the scene directed the evacuated students to Orlando Village as a rallying point.
Professor Holmes said: “Student services, staff volunteers accompanied by other concerned staff, responded instantly, attending and taking charge of essential needs. We all worked through Friday night, in partnership with the emergency services to ensure all students registered with the landlord were accounted for and safe. The welfare of our students was our only concern and it was absolutely paramount that everyone had a bed for what remained of their night. We used spare rooms at Orlando, greatly assisted by the McCombe management team who run the Halls, along with staff on site. We also housed students at a variety of local hotels, including Travelodge, the Holiday Inn, The Whites and the Britannia.”
As dawn broke on Saturday 16 November, the national media descended and University colleagues volunteered to join the relief effort. The Chancellor’s Mall building at the University was opened and the Social Learning Zone and the Bistro created a critical incident hub for students to gather and address any problems.
Professor Holmes said: “More than 150 volunteer staff of the University from all levels worked tirelessly for two full days in the hub over the weekend. The staff and students of the University and the SU have been phenomenal in their response.”
Students also gathered to support students affected and volunteers from other key agencies joined the effort. Mental health counsellors, with the support of the University’s Psychology department also offered support to those affected.
A fire investigation is now under way at The Cube and the University is awaiting permission to re-enter Phase 1 of the complex so students can gather essential documents in a planned, supervised, re-entry operation.
Professor Holmes said: “Clothing, IT equipment, folders full of course notes and assessment work are all likely to be lost or damaged. Other crucial documents such as bank cards and passports are amongst the items lost in burnt out flats. Students are in shock from what they have experienced in the blaze and have a deep sense of loss and uncertainty about their academic work.”
The University acted swiftly to address concerns and put in place the following measures:
• All 213 students affected have been re-housed in temporary University-provided accommodation and hotels while a permanent solution for the remainder of the academic year for each one of them is organised.
• Every student received a grant of £500 to enable them to buy essentials, such as toiletries and clothing.
• A vast supply of clothing, food and personal items have been donated by generous members of the community and a variety of local and national businesses, including Asda, Warburtons, Bolton Wanderers, Aldi, Carphone Warehouse, the University of Salford SU, Turner and Wright, the Body Shop, Bolton, Craftprint Ltd, Marks and Spencer, Bolton, China Room, Homeless Aid UK, the Al-Imdaad Foundation, Park Cakes and Ryman in Bolton town centre. These items are available freely for collection from the SLZ for students affected.
• The British Red Cross have been on the University campus all week assisting students.
• Hot meals have been provided in the University Bistro since Saturday morning free of charge to all. This will continue for the 213 students affected until the University is satisfied that they are stabilised and re-homed on a regular basis.
• All additional travel costs associated with students’ relocation will be covered, both immediately and for the remainder of the academic year if they have to relocate out of town.
• All academic assessments are suspended for the 213 displaced students. No student will be academically disadvantaged due to loss of work in this incident.
• New university ID cards lost have been reissued.
• All students affected have been provided with counselling services and wellbeing support which will be ongoing.
• Loan laptops will be provided and where essential IT equipment has been permanently lost will be replaced by the University as soon as possible and insurance issues followed up to reclaim funds from insurers in due course.
• Passports lost permanently and other documents will be fast tracked through government systems to enable students to travel home at Christmas if they plan to. Representatives of the Passport Office were on site at the University on Thursday 21 November 21 and Friday 22 November.
• The SLZ will remain the hub and the computers therein will also be there for the exclusive access of the 213 affected students until the University is satisfied that matters are stable.
• All other individual issues unique to each person affected will be dealt with one by one in the SLZ hub.
A multi-agency group has been set up by Bolton Council, made up of representatives from the University of Bolton, the local authority, emergency services, health, accommodation providers, and voluntary organisations.
The partnership is working together to ensure all residents are supported, following the incident, and processes are put into place to help the recovery process.
Professor Holmes said: “We have provided everything from replacement mobile phones for those left in the building, to getting a passport yesterday for a student to travel urgently within hours’ notice; to the purchase of nappies for a student’s baby. Students should be encouraged to study and continue with the assurance that where files of years of work have been lost and revision for exams becomes almost impossible, then reasonable adjustments will be made to the assessment regime.”
Professor Holmes added: “The University hosted both the Prime Minister when he cancelled his diary on Saturday to visit us and the Secretary of State for Communities who joined us on Saturday evening until 22.30 as well as the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, who visited on Tuesday and spoke to staff and students.
Andy Burnham said, “To say I am impressed with the volunteer effort by staff and students and agencies and the community at large is an understatement. I do not have words to express my gratitude on behalf of students as to how our teams pulled through and spontaneously delivered. The students have been magnificent in their mutual support and all staff and helpers have been phenomenal in doing anything they can to support the students.”
He added: “The wider community and local and national businesses have rallied around, donating everything from toiletries and new clothing to money. The generosity of time and spirit from the University and the wider community has been absolutely phenomenal. It is now almost a week since the incident happened, but the support will continue for as long as our students require it.”
An official fund has been set up to accept financial contributions.
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