Sudbury was rocked on Sunday evening as a huge fire took hold of timber-framed listed building in the town centre, destroying properties and livelihoods, making 20 households homeless.
The fire is believed to have started in Celebrities Nails in Friars Street, which was completely destroyed. It then spread to other properties, ripping through the Oxfam shop next door as well as the residential flats above.
The rescue operation involved 20 appliances and more than 100 firefighters, with people being carried from burning buildings as windows exploded around them.
The fire was reported at 6.17pm after Carly Ashdown spotted the windows in the nail bar looked cloudy.
Walking back to check with her boyfriend Ben Barnbrook, the pair realised there was a fire inside. They rang the fire brigade before setting about shouting to residents in the flats above and pushing doorbells to alert people that there was a fire.
Mr Barnbrooke, Paul Pengelly, Rob Mann, Jim Edgson and three or four other men who were at scene then used a ladder they found nearby to climb up to some of the neighbouring properties and help people get out. Other residents evacuated their homes on their own accord.
Fifteen minutes after Miss Ashdown’s call, the crew from Long Melford was first on the scene, with firefighter Pat Ince being described as the “hero of the hour” by his station commander for his role in rescuing 48-year-old Christina Deke from her second floor home.
First alerted to the fire by those below ringing the doorbell, just as the fire alarm began to sound, Mrs Deke and her husband Elison, who are both support workers, attempted to leave the building.
But with heavy smoke already blocking the stairs and fearful they may not be able to get to the ground floor, Mrs Deke returned to the flat.
With Mr Deke, 52, having made his way out of the property, his wife opened the front window waiting to be rescued, ready, she said, to jump if she had to.
“I was shouting for help and waiting for the fire brigade,” said Mrs Deke.
Looking up helplessly, Mr Deke said he only began to panic when “the building started to blow out”, with the fire increasing in intensity, anxiously waiting for the fire brigade to arrive
After a dramatic rescue by Mr Ince, Mr Deke said he was “so happy and relieved”, adding: “The fireman is our hero.”
Mrs Deke said she was shocked to see the fire when she was brought down, but said it was only when she saw the pictures the next day she realised the severity of the situation.
“I was shocked and upset, I thought ‘Oh my, that really was close’.”
The couple, who lived above the Oxfam shop, said it was hard seeing their home now as little more than rubble.
“It is upsetting, but we are just so pleased we are alive,” said Mr Deke.
“The flat is just a property, we can get that back bit by bit. As long as we are alive we are happy.”
Miss Ashdown said it was a horrifying experience watching from below.
She said: “If they had been a few minutes later she wouldn’t have made it.
“The flames were licking up the front. It was awful. I thought ‘we are going to see somebody die here.’
“It was the scariest thing I’ve ever had to witness. It took hold so quickly.”
The 32-year-old accounts administrator said onlookers could tell the fire was going to “blow”, with the potent mix of the nail bar chemicals, timber framed properties and the amount of flammable items in the Oxfam store, feeding the inferno.
As the fire escalated, more engines were sent from across Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Essex to tackle the blaze.
In total 15 fire engines alongside emergency service colleagues from the police and ambulance service as well as other organisations were called to the scene and fought the fire.
By 9.45pm crews has the fire contained and some firefighters were able to begin the salvage operation from some of the ground floor shops.
Crews continued to bring the fire under control throughout the rest of the night, although the extent of the damage meant that part of the building collapsed at 2.35am.
By 5.35am the main efforts to contain the fire halted and work began on ensuring the safety of the scene and assessing the damage.