Ten years on, Carvers has risen from the ashes

Henry Carver was sat in his office when, in a state of panic, his secretary burst in.

The sky was filled with black smoke as firefighters battled with the flames
The sky was filled with black smoke as firefighters battled with the flames

"It's not another practice, it's for real," she said breathlessly. If this sounds like a scene from an American disaster movie, it looked like one too. But it was very, very real.

It is 10 years since Carvers Building Supplies in Wolverhampton was destroyed in one of the biggest fires the city had ever seen. The sky was engulfed with huge plumes of pitch-black smoke, 20ft flames shot through the roof, the sound of exploding gas cylinders rang out like gunfire.

Workers stood by in tears as their workplace, along with parked cars, was engulfed in a ball of fire.

Traffic ground to a standstill. Hundreds of people were evacuated from their homes, schools or university accommodation. The railway station was closed and all trains were diverted away from the city.

And within a couple of hours, a family business which had taken 116 years to build was destroyed. The vast two-acre warehouse just off the Wolverhampton ring road, was totally gutted. And for a while it looked touch-and-go whether the company, which supplied thousands of builders across the West Midlands, would survive. The 200 workers who were employed at the site in Littles Lane had an anxious wait to find if they were still in employment.

And Mr Carver, who represents the fifth generation of his family to run the business, said he had plenty of sleepless nights in the aftermath of the blaze.

"It was devastating," he recalls. "I worried whether we could do it, whether our customers would go elsewhere in the time it took to rebuild.

"A lifetime's work had literally gone up in flames. I thought 'how could we recover from this?'"

"We haemorrhaged £2 million a month while we were waiting for the insurers to settle with us. They were positive from the start, they never said they were not going to back us. But if it had gone on much longer it would have been very difficult.

"I didn't sleep at night for a few days, I was worried about whether we could recover. But when I came in the next week and had some meetings with the insurers, they said they were going to support us, it was just a case of carrying out the due diligence."

He says the turning point came when the company which supplied the faulty boiler agreed to a substantial out-of-court settlement, which gave him the confidence to reinvest in the company.

Recalling the moment he was told about the blaze, Mr Carver says he was initially hopeful that the fire service would be able to deal with it.

"We looked outside from the window, I could see there was a fire with the boiler, I thought if they can get the fire engines there to put some water on it, then they could put it out," he says.

"It almost seemed to spread at walking pace, which doesn't sound that quick, but it went through 150 metres of building in minutes, not hours."

Mr Carver remembers the nervous wait while firefighters assessed the situation and decided how best to tackle the blaze.

"It seemed like ages, in reality it was probably only about 15 minutes, they decided they were going to contain it, and not stop it. Nobody was trapped inside the building, so it was only danger to property.

"They wanted to make sure it didn't reach the gas tanks."

As the fire intensified, the evacuated staff were pushed further and further back, before being told to go home by their visibly shell-shocked boss.

Mr Carver fought back the tears as he told his workforce to go home. He had been last to leave the building after checking everyone was out.

"We can take a little bit of happiness in that no-one has died," he said in the aftermath of the fire.

The fire, which was thought to be caused by a faulty boiler which had been recently installed, broke out just about 11.40am on February 29, 2012.

Eyewitness Isabella Hawkins stared in disbelief as the fire took hold.

"I have never seen anything like this before, it's terrible," she said.

"Carvers is such an old building and such a well-known company in Wolverhampton, it's really shocking, and so sad to see this happen."

Carvers was indeed a very old company in Wolverhampton, a family-run company dating back to 1896. And one of the causes of great sadness for Henry Carver was the loss of precious historic records in the fire.

One customer, who asked not to be named, was shopping in the warehouse in Littles Lane just seconds before the fire broke out.

"I was picking up some supplies, and my receipt says 11.36am," he says.

"I left and when I turned back, literally a couple of minutes later, the whole place was on fire. I have never seen anything like it. The flames were moving very rapidly."

A total of 90 firefighters were brought in from across the West Midlands, taking water from the nearby Birmingham Canal to douse the flames. The police helicopter hovered above the scene providing live images to assist firefighters in the force control room.

More than 700 students were evacuated from the Wolverhampton University's Victoria Halls. The high-rise buildings were controversially built within the blast zone of two huge propane gas canisters which Carvers had at the site.

Customer Barry Kelbie was in Carvers collecting a new oak door for his living room when the fire started to take hold.

"I was inside having a laugh and a joke with the lads behind the counter and the next thing I knew a lad came running saying the wood burner had caught fire. We had to get out."

Mr Kelbie's van was parked directly outside Carvers, and he left just as the emergency services were arriving.

"I got away as soon as I could," he said.

"Those gas cannisters were close by, I didn't want to be around if one of those things went off."

Operations director at Carvers described the way the fire quickly went out of control.

"It was going at such a rate that we just phoned 999 straight away," he said at the time.

"We vacated the building and did a roll call of all our staff, and did our best to get everyone, including customers, out of the building. It's heartbreaking."

Employee Tony Nicholls, who was 50 at the time, was in the timber yard when the alarms started to sound.

"Within two minutes we saw smoke rising from the roof and within 20 minutes the whole of the roof was ablaze."

Chris Roberts was a 22-year-old broadcast journalism student at Wolverhampton University's Victoria Halls student village. He initially thought the fire was in the student village itself.

"They said there was a fire so we went downstairs, and when we went outside all you could see was thick, black smoke covering the sky," he said.

"We heard what we thought were exploding paint cans and saw lots of flames. Police were saying we had to move away because we were in the blast zone. Slowly people moved back – they were reluctant because they wanted to see what was happening."

West Bromwich fire station commander Carl Shaffery said the fire was still going 24 hours later, with the collapse of the building leaving small hard-to-reach pockets where the flames continued to burn.

The one advantage the company did have was that it had a second site, a timber production depot in Neachells Lane, Willenhall. This proved crucial in allowing the company to keep trading, providing the company with a temporary headquarters.

Demolition of the burned-out warehouse in Wolverhampton took six weeks, but the workforce was able to quickly relocate to a hastily erected large warehouse at the Willenhall site.

Plans were announced to create a "builders' village" where different trades, such as tile and paint specialists could rent space and promote their services, and a 'drive through' to allow people to drive right up to the shelves and load their vehicles.

Carvers held a grant reopening at Littles Lane on November 8, 2014.

Ten years on, Mr Carver says the business has bounced back and is now in better shape than it was before the fire. He says there was never any question of giving up the business without a fight.

"You get close to people, and I knew many of our employees, we have many members of the same family working for us," he says.

"The insurers always offer 70-80 per cent of the cash just to close down, simply because it's cheaper for them. Seventy-five per cent take that option and close down, but we're proud to be one of the 25 per cent that didn't. It is a great credit to the staff I had with me that we were able to come back. I had a team of directors and senior managers who wanted to fight both for themselves and the company."

The company managed to retain its entire workforce,

Mr Carver is also proud that the company continued to pay all its bills, even when trade was disrupted in the aftermath of the fire.

"If we had not paid our suppliers in particular, it would not only have been the wrong thing to do, but it would have led to a total loss of confidence in us," he says.

"It's not always the case, but sometimes it pays to do the right thing."

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