One of the first firefighters at the scene of a gigantic blaze which engulfed a plastics warehouse near St Mary’s Stadium in Southampton said it was one of the biggest he had ever seen.

Leon Gill, crew manager of Green Watch - the team on shift at St Mary’s Fire Station at the time of last week's blaze, has been a firefighter for 17 years.

However, the inferno, which the team he was leading was called to tackle, caused a sense of awe in him the moment he set foot on the ground.

A large black column of smoke dominated the city skyline from the inferno which started around lunchtime and led to the postponement of the Saints' Championship match against Preston North End.

Daily Echo: Leon Gill, crew manager at St Mary’s Fire StationLeon Gill, crew manager at St Mary’s Fire Station (Image: Newsquest, Jose Ramos)

Speaking in an exclusive interview with the Daily Echo, a week after the large blaze, Leon said: “When I first saw it my thought was ‘Wow that was quick’.

“The time it took for us to get to the scene from the time of the call was minutes. We don’t know how long the fire was raging before we got there but when we got there it was fully developed.”

He added: "I thought to myself, that's a big fire. One of the biggest I have seen. In terms of size and intensity in the short amount of time, we got there from when the first call came."

'I was doing some admin'

Leon was at his desk at St Mary’s Fire Station when they were first alerted at 1.05pm.

Crews rushed to get their gear on and two fire appliances – what they call fire engines – were sent from the station just minutes away – along with another engine from Hightown station.

“The crews were having lunch and I was doing some admin work when the bell rang," he said. "The initial information we got was of a commercial fire. There were no specifics apart from the fire was active.

“As soon as we left the station we could see the cloud of smoke so we were almost following the smoke as we were getting there. It just looked like it was coming from the stadium.”

Upon arrival, the 44-year-old crew manager came face to face with the raging blaze.

Call for back-up

Flames of up to five metres were fuelled by plastics and cardboard and the trail of black smoke was seen from Ringwood and Winchester. He quickly realised the scale of resources needed.

Daily Echo: Firefighters at the scene of the fireFirefighters at the scene of the fire (Image: Newsquest, Jose Ramos)

The call was made for eight more engines to be sent to the scene, as well as two aerial ladders.

“The first question in my mind was ‘Is there anyone in there'? Our first point of contact was a police officer at the scene, and he told us everyone had been evacuated from the building.

"So we had to act on a more defensive mode and stand outside hosing into the fire."

Daily Echo: An aerial shot of the smoke above Southampton. Picture: Sam ColemanAn aerial shot of the smoke above Southampton. Picture: Sam Coleman (Image: Sam Coleman)

When asked if that answer caused a sigh of relief, he replied: “Not a sigh of relief. It takes away a lot of the risk to the crews, in not having to go in.

“Especially because the building was structurally unsafe because of the severity of the fire.”

The team had one goal at that moment: To stop the fire, which had consumed three units, to spread to the remaining two.

Daily Echo: The fire service response. Picture: Jose RamosThe fire service response. Picture: Jose Ramos (Image: Jose Ramos)

Crews used fog spikes, a piece of equipment which drill into walls and once a hole is made then spray water into the centre of a fire. This keeps the blaze from spreading.

Whilst tackling the fire, warehouse workers on forklifts rushed to move hundreds of wooden pallets standing just metres away from the roaring blaze. This required much-needed help from other warehouse workers to get the pallets moved and avoid them going up in flames.

Daily Echo: Pete McClemont, station commander at St Mary’s StationPete McClemont, station commander at St Mary’s Station (Image: Newsquest, Jose Ramos)

Pete McClemont, station commander at St Mary’s Station who joined the scene to support crews and oversee the response said: “That community help that we received from nearby workers to get wooden pallets out of the way was a very nice gesture.

“While they were doing that, there were other people emptying car parks for us to park our vehicles at. It was a good moment of the community coming together."

He added: "I was always aware of the safety of my team and to make sure none of my crew are in danger."

Daily Echo: The plume of smoke seen from across the riverThe plume of smoke seen from across the river (Image: UGC)

Water pumped out of the Itchen and Solent

At the height of the incident, there were over 100 firefighters from all over the county, 35 different vehicles, including a high-volume pump– being used to pump water out of the Itchen – and two aerial ladders.

In serious incidents like this, no thought is spared on making sure the correct number of resources are deployed.

Pete said: “We were putting a lot of water on the fire so we needed as much water as we could get.

“So, we had a high-volume pump from Ringwood which was pumping water out of the Solent.”

Daily Echo:  Paul Reddish, group manager at Hampshire and Isle of Wight Fire Service Paul Reddish, group manager at Hampshire and Isle of Wight Fire Service (Image: Newsquest, Jose Ramos)

Four hours after the initial call, the fire still raged, although with much less intensity. The black smoke was replaced with a grey cloud and bystanders who had heard of the fire stood nearby watching.

The building had crumbled in on itself and this meant that although there were still patches on fire, firefighters weren’t able to put the blaze out completely as its parts were shielded by the debris.

The fire went on into the night and it wasn’t until the next morning that it was mostly out. Two of the five units were spared from the blaze. However, in the days that followed, firefighters remained at the scene watering down the site and looking for hotspots which would light up again.

Daily Echo: The blaze at the warehouse in SouthamptonThe blaze at the warehouse in Southampton (Image: Aaron Goodfellow)

Daily Echo: Drone photos show the devastation of a warehouse near St Mary's Stadium in Southampton gutted by flamesDrone photos show the devastation of a warehouse near St Mary's Stadium in Southampton gutted by flames (Image: Sam Trewick-Coleman)

Not just a response service

A week on, the fire is not deemed to be suspicious and the investigation is being led by loss adjusters.

In their day-to-day, the fire service does more than just respond to incidents.

Work is constantly being done on prevention and Pete has appealed for businesses to make sure they liaise with the fire service on what they store in their building, to assist in their response in any future incident.

He said: “A lot of people think our job is just to respond to fires but these days we do a lot of prevention work.

“That helps us in the assistance we get from businesses.

"If say buildings keep inflammable products, we’re able to store that as a risk in our records, which allows us to determine the scale of a response in case of an incident.”

Looking back, he is ‘proud’ of how the team managed the incident, saying: “The team showed their professionalism in their response and how they worked to get the tackle the fire as soon as possible.”