Windsor Castle: The Fire
Windsor Castle has been the home of the British monarchy since the 11th century. Currently the official residence of Queen Elizabeth II, it's the world's oldest castle. It is still used for ceremonial occasions, including hosting state visits from overseas leaders and royalty.
Home to around 150 members of staff, in addition to housing the Crown's treasures, the Royal Collection, the Royal Archives, the Royal Photograph Collection, the Royal Library and the Print Room, the Queen stays at Windsor Castle on the majority of her private weekends and takes up official residence there for a month every spring.
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St George’s Chapel, the spiritual home of the Order of the Garter, is also located at Windsor Castle. Founded by Edward III in 1348, the world's oldest order of chivalry consists of Queen Elizabeth, the Prince of Wales and their 24 Knight Companions.
The famous castle was built by William the Conqueror, who ordered the construction to begin in 1070. It took 16 years to complete and became a stone fortress that survived siege warfare, the English Civil War and the two world wars in the 20th century.
The first sign of smoke
After surviving almost 1,000 years and protecting the royal family from civil unrest and wars, Windsor Castle was almost destroyed by a massive fire on 20th November 1992. The castle staff were going about their daily business and tourists were enjoying strolling around the monument when the first sign that something was amiss occurred.
Picture-restorers were packing away the historic works of art in Queen Victoria's private chapel as they prepared for refurbishment work at around 11.30am, when they noticed smoke billowing from an altar curtain. To their horror, they realised the curtain was alight, due to a spotlight that was pressed up against it having overheated.
The workers called for assistance and used fire extinguishers as they tried to put out what was a relatively small fire at this point. However, it soon began to spread, sparking a chain of events which saw staff and a member of the royal family frantically trying to save the castle's historic artefacts.
The castle has its own fire brigade and moments later, the alarm sounded in the watch room, alerting them to the location of the blaze on their grid map of the castle. It showed that the Brunwick Tower was alight by this time. Within minutes, more lights began illuminating all over the grid as the fire spread rapidly.
By 11.37am, it became apparent the castle's fire brigade couldn't contain the blaze, so they called the Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service. A team effort saw some of the staff helping the fire brigade to fight the blaze, while others tried to rush works of art, including sculptures and paintings, to safety from the burning building.
The blaze spread into St George’s Hall and even with the castle's hydrants and emergency water supply tanks, it had taken a serious hold. Three pumps, a hydraulic platform, a salvage unit and a support pump arrived within seven minutes of the initial call.
Chapel dome collapses
Officer in charge Mick Koza had realised the seriousness of the situation within just one minute of arriving. He called urgently for back-up but the situation reached crisis level when the chapel dome collapsed at 1.20pm. The fire crews had to admit they had lost the chapel area.
They concentrated their efforts on preventing the blaze from spreading further, as the Clock Tower and Chester Tower were now in danger. Extra firefighters were pouring in from all over the south of England, including Surrey, Royal Berkshire, Hampshire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and London.
In addition, extra appliances were brought in from further afield, including Watford, Cirencester and Devizes. In total, 225 firefighters and 39 pumps were used to fight the blaze. More than one million gallons of water poured over the flames, but it took until 8.35pm before it was surrounded.
Duke of York helps
Dramatic images were appearing on television all day as household staff and soldiers retrieved many personal items, including a collection of historic books, from the Waterloo Chamber.
Prince Andrew, The Duke of York, had been visiting the castle at the time and without any thought for his own safety, he joined the staff to take irreplaceable items out of the castle to safety. Furniture, artwork and other antiquities were saved as a result of a "human chain" being formed to pass the items to safety.
When the blaze was finally surrounded and the damage surveyed, other than the chapel, the Brunswick Tower, the highest point of the castle, was very badly damaged. Luckily, because of the refurbishment work that was going on at the castle at the time, many of the valuable artefacts had been temporarily removed, or they may have been lost.
Cause of blaze confirmed
The subsequent investigation blamed a 1,000-watt tungsten spotlight which had overheated and ignited the chapel curtain. Sadly, a lack of firebreaks and other fire-stopping materials in roof voids and cavities had allowed the fire to spread quickly into the Brunswick Tower, private apartments and St George’s Hall.
The cost of rebuilding Windsor Castle was £37 million. It was not covered by insurance, because occupied royal palaces are deemed too valuable to insure against losses and insurance companies won't cover them.
The Queen agreed to pay 70% of the cost of the restoration work in February 1993 and Buckingham Palace was opened for public tours to raise enough money to pay for the remaining restoration work. As a result of the fire, Windsor Castle was further fireproofed and safety was also improved in other British heritage properties.
Hydraulic fire engines
The fire engines that saved Windsor Castle were made efficient thanks to their hydraulic systems. The fire engine's mighty ladder is raised and lowered by a hydraulic piston rod. The hydraulic fluid enters the piston rod via hoses. The ladder goes up when the piston rod extends and goes down when it retracts. Its movement depends on the pressure of the hydraulic fluid.
A different set of hydraulic hoses works to move the individual sections of the ladder up and down telescope-fashion. The ladder is moved from left to right by a hydraulic motor, which rotates the mechanism. An extra water line runs along the length of the ladder and is used to spray water on fires in extremely high places.
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