Police were last night still investigating whether a huge fire which destroyed a carpet retail store in Belfast was set deliberately or accidental.
Some 50 firefighters battled the blaze for three hours before they were able to bring it under control.
The Fire Service described the blaze as “very, very dangerous” and had to warn George Best Belfast City Airport about the smoke plume, which was visible right across Belfast.
Firefighters were called to the Carpet Right retail unit in Connswater Retail Park in east Belfast at about 1.45pm on Saturday.
A total of 11 appliances, including two specialist aerial appliances, were able to bring the fire under control by around 4.45pm.
Fire and Rescue Service area commander for Greater Belfast Alan Walmsley said that when they arrived at the blaze staff and the public had already escaped.
“Being in a carpet store it was a very, very dangerous fire,” he said.
“It had initially caught hold in carpets in the centre of the building and very quickly spread.”
Firefighters using breathing equipment tried to tackle the fire from within the building but it was too intense and they soon had to withdraw.
The aim then was to stop the fire spreading to adjoining premises.
“The heat was so intense from the front to the back door that the metal doors at the front of the store bent inwards as the fire sucked air inwards.”
The major black smoke plume was seen right across Belfast.
“Because we were only five miles away from the flight path, we had to inform George Best City Airport.”
Ring roads nearby had to be closed, although the shopping centre itself remained open.
The Fire Service used every hose they had and had to tap into all hydrants and the nearby river in order to supply the eight jets that had trained on the blaze.
“Thankfully no members of the public or firefighters were hurt and we managed to stop it spreading into Halfords and the adjacent vacant store,” added Mr Walmsley.
It was much too early to say what the cause of the blaze was, he said, so at this time it remains undetermined.
Investigators will look into the matter today, he added.
The PSNI also said it was too early to say whether they would be treating the blaze as malicious, adding that it would not be safe for investigators to enter the building until today.
UUP councillor Jim Rodgers was at the scene of the blaze. “The firefighters did a brilliant job in bringing it under control, as did the police in keeping the public back and directing traffic,” he said.
“I am very relieved nobody was hurt.
“There are all sorts of rumours; some people saw two youths acting suspiciously.
“The police and Fire Service told me that two youths made the 999 call.”
Mr Rodgers heard reports that just before the blaze two youths tried to run into Halfords but were chased and then ran into Carpet Right “with something in their hand”. Others said that bins were set on fire at the rear of the premises, he said.
He hoped the company could find other work promptly for the six or so employees at the store, he said. “I would like to know the cause of the blaze as soon as possible.”
Mr Rodgers said there had been a number of fires in commercial properties in Belfast over the past 18 months and he could not get clear explanations as to whether any of them were malicious.
However, area commander Mr Walmsley replied that it was not unusual to take 9-12 months to determine the cause of such a fire, with statutory and insurance investigators having to complete their probes.