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The alarm was raised shortly after 8 p.m. on December 7, 2002, and soon after more than 150 firefighters had arrived to tackle the blaze as it burned through buildings in Cowgate and South Bridge. By the time it was brought under control and extinguished, some three days later, an entire city block of the Old City had been flattened – 13 buildings were gone but thankfully no lives were lost, although hundreds had to flee Their houses.
It was 8.11pm when a small plume of smoke was first spotted emanating from Hastie’s Close. Two minutes later, fire alarms sounded in shuttered shops up and down South Bridge. The first fire crews from nearby Tollcross station arrived moments later.
Another of the first people on the scene as news of the fire began to spread was photographer Tony Marsh of www.tonymarshphotography.com, a corporate and wedding photographer, at the time Tony was the photo editor of the News’ sister paper, Scotland on Sunday. At home in the village of Cousland after a long day at the office, he was in his pyjamas, getting ready for bed when he received the call that would allow him to capture what would become the definitive image of the fire , an iconic shot that today would instantly go viral.
Reminiscing about the night, Tony recalls: “I was done for the day and Jill, one of my assistant photo editors, was taking care of the office, which was due to finish at 1am. Later I got a call from her saying there was a fire in the Cowgate and she didn’t have a photographer to go look at. At the time, we had no idea how big it was, but as a photographer and image editor, I was always ready for a late call, if it came. the car and drove back to Edinburgh – the roads were quiet at this time of night so I made the trip in about 20 minutes.”
There was a police cordon in place by the time Tony pulled over and it quickly became apparent that the fire was a major one.
Tony picks up the story: “There was a fireman at the cordon that I knew and I managed to persuade him to let me in – it was a rank so he had the power to do it. As I stood at the top of Blair Street I could see what a major fire it was; there was a hydraulic unit with a firefighter on top with a hose and firefighters and firefighters everywhere. When I saw the flames, I was afraid they were going all over Cowgate.
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“I took some pictures and called the office to say how big it was, then I spoke to the deputy editor of the paper and told him how big it was, and no one didn’t really believe me. They thought I was getting too excited about it. So I took a dozen pictures and rushed to the office on Holyrood Road to hook up my camera and upload the pictures – it was back when you couldn’t send or email your photos.
“I guess I wasn’t even there for half an hour because I was really aware that if I didn’t shoot fast I wouldn’t get them back to the office in time to get them in the paper that night and beat everyone in the morning.
“When I got back, around midnight, they had the latest edition of the newspaper for the next day and put the picture on the front page, although until they saw it and realized how important it was, they were going to put it in page four.”
After dropping off the photos, Tony went back to take more photos but was not allowed through the cordon.
He recalls: “I was so focused on the entrance that I don’t even remember if a crowd had gathered. It was really exciting for me because it wasn’t often that something so important happened at this time of night and there was real excitement about meeting this deadline.
He laughs, adding, “At the time, it reminded me of why I was doing what I was doing, but there are still times today when I hear a fire truck and think, ‘I wonder where? they go ? Although gone are the days when I could follow one, but I miss the excitement of this “in the moment” news.
The fire itself made headlines around the world, the loss of the Gilded Balloon Fringe Hall led then-Mayor of Paris Bertrand Delanoe to offer the advice of French architectural experts, but it’s not just the Gilded Balloon that was lost, music venue La Belle Angele, which hosted a legendary Oasis concert in 1994 and bands like The Libertines, was also lost. Today, the site of the fire is home to a 257-bed Ibis hotel, a ground floor Sainsbury’s on South Bridge and associated shops, restaurants and bars.