Manager explains how crews dug through the night to isolate gas…

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An engineering manager Wales & West Utilities has written a letter explain the difficulties fire crews faced while tackling last Friday’s devastating Exeter fire.

In response to a letter entitled ‘Situation exacerbated by fractured gas main’, Stephen Pitman said crews had to dig holes to manually isolate the gas during the blaze.

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Read his letter in full below:

Severity of fire made gas work challenging

I am Wales & West Utilities Area Engineering Manager for South West England and one of the managers involved last weekend where we worked alongside the fire service that was fighting the fire at the Royal Clarence Hotel, Exeter.

I want to give your readers an outline of the work we – the gas emergency and pipeline service for Wales and the south west of England – did, and when we did it.

We were called by the fire service to Cathedral Yard on Friday afternoon and immediately sent an engineering team to the scene.

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The Royal Clarence on fire

Most commercial buildings have a gas valve outside them to turn the gas off in situations like this one. However, due to the severity of the fire and the risk of parts of the building collapsing, our engineering team were not allowed to get close enough to the building to do this.

Instead, we began a complex operation to dig into the ground and manually isolate the section of the gas network feeding properties in the area. Our teams dug in three separate locations in the vicinity of the fire.

This was challenging due to the severity of the fire and time consuming because of ground conditions in the area and the number of other utilities in the ground that we had to dig around.

Working closely with the Fire Service, our engineers worked non-stop overnight to do this as safely and as quickly as possible, and we managed to do so just before noon on Saturday.

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The demolition of the Royal Clarence

By Saturday morning, the fire had spread to several properties in the area, including the Royal Clarence Hotel, and was well alight. On Saturday morning the fire damaged the gas installation at the Royal Clarence Hotel which resulted in gas leaking into the already burning building and continuing to fuel the fire until our teams isolated the gas network in the area.

As a Devonian – and someone who has spent a lot of time in Exeter, I too am saddened by the events of last weekend. However, I want to reassure your readers that not only did the gas supply to the Royal Clarence Hotel – damaged as it was by fire – play a relatively minor part in the blaze, we worked as safely and as quickly as we could – considering the challenging circumstances we found at the scene – to isolate gas supplies to the area.

Stephen Pitman

Wales & West Utilities Area Engineering Manager – South West England

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