SURVIVORS and relatives of the 49 victims killed in the Booth’s factory disaster have met to share their stories and discuss plans for a permanent memorial.
More than 70 years after the blaze ripped through the Huddersfield Clothing factory on October 31, 1941, no plaque is in place at the former John William Street site to mark the tragedy.
The survivors and relatives met at a reunion at the Merrie England on Kirkgate.
Florrie Walsh, 84, was working at the factory on that fateful day. “I had only been there six months to the day when the fire happened,’’ she said.
“There were no alarms. Foreman George Thurkill came over and shouted ‘Fire, get out’. When we got to the bottom of the steps outside, the building started to blow up. We were the last to walk out of that door alive.
“I was so lucky and I firmly believe Mr Thurkill saved my life.”
At the time of the disaster H Booth and Sons Ltd was a prominent five-storey converted warehouse that stood back-to-back with the Empire Cinema in the town centre, facing the railway viaduct on the opposite side of the road.
The factory had only one staircase, no evacuation drill and a buzzer system which failed on that fatal morning.
Sixteen-year-old Edie Lockwood was one of those died after she jumped 40 feet from a window to escape the terrifying blaze.
Her brother Frank, 74, explained: “She was a machinist on the top level and jumped from the building to escape.
“Our parents didn’t know she was in the fire because she didn’t have an identity bracelet on. By the time they got to the hospital she had died.’’
His brother Selwyn, who was nine at the time, recalled: “I remember being at school and the teacher telling me my mum wanted me home.
“I don’t remember anything else, just being told Edie was in the fire. I think I must have blocked it out.”
Survivor Emma Atkinson, 91, considers herself one of the lucky ones.
Mrs Atkinson, who was 20 at the time, said: “There was three of us who got out just before the explosion. A fourth lady, Olive Blakewell, went back for her handbag and I later found out she died.
“We managed to get down the stairs just before a massive explosion.
“I was so lucky. They asked me to go to the hospital to identify the bodies but when I got there I lost my nerve and couldn’t go through with it. It was horrific what happened that day.”
And the blaze has also affected generations who lost relatives in the tragedy.
Margaret South, who never met her grandfather, George Thurkill, said: “My dad told me when I was quite young about how my grandad died at Booth’s fire.
“I remember going to Edgerton Cemetery to see the edifice. I feel proud that I have heard from a number of people who said they owe their lives to his bravery. I just wish I had met him.”
Richard Heath, of Heckmondwike, has been the driving force for the campaign for a memorial, despite not being born at the time.
“I think the devastation and tragedy that happened at Booth’s was Huddersfield’s ‘Titanic moment’,’’ he said.
“It must have been a deeply traumatic experience, but it has yet to be recognised at the site.
“That is why, all these years later, it is so important to mark the site with a plaque as a permanent reminder of the tragedy.”
He said discussions are currently ongoing with the current site owner’s Tesco for the memorial plaque.