While BHQ summoned the Station Officer’s requirements from Sandown, Bembridge and Newport, Len clambered into his boots and leggings, buttoned his tunic, donned his white cork helmet, and took his place in Ethel’s front nearside seat. One by one the crew cab was filled until the throaty engine roared, the appliance pulled through the bifold doors and arrived at the frontage of the theatre amid a swarm of gasping onlookers at 23:06. They were closely followed by Ryde’s second appliance commanded by Leading Fireman Collis.
At 23:08 Chief Fire Officer Richard Fitzmaurice Sullivan, known affectionately as the father of the IW fire brigade having commanded it since its inception in 1948, was called at home by BHQ alerting him to the fire and the scale of the operation being launched.
Like Len Williams, the CFO was a veteran of wartime firefighting having served as Divisional Commander in Bournemouth with the National Fire Service before serving as the Column Officer of the Island from August 1946 and overseeing the final months and close of NFS Fire Force 14d. At the time few of his firemen were in the know that when the County Council were seeking the Island’s first CFO in late 1947, Richard Sullivan was not their first choice. Fate was to intervene and when eventually appointed chief-elect just two months before the county brigade was born it was to be a decision that led to two decades of impeccable officership.
As the CFO prepared to depart his home to drive to the incident, Station Officer Williams, having re-evaluated the situation on the fireground, despatched a further message to BHQ – make pumps ten.
It was immediately apparent to Station Officer Williams that the theatre was lost. On arrival the roof was alight from end to end and a little later a large portion of it plunged past the orange glow from the windows and crashed into the auditorium. With searing heat useful only in assisting the Police to keep the crowd from getting too close, Williams was faced with two concerns – radiated fire spread to adjacent properties and total collapse of the lofty outer walls. As the fire raged within, further weakening what was left of the structure’s integrity, probability of collapse increased. Among those who stood agape at the havoc being wreaked on the lofty structure was a 14-year-old boy who recalled - I remember being woken up by all the noise and then walking to the fire and watching the flames as they bolted into the night sky it was a very memorable night.
CFO Sullivan raced to Ryde and took command of the incident at 23:18. By then Williams’ plan to protect adjacent properties with cooling jets, combined with directing firefighting jets into the burning mass within was well underway. Sullivan backed Williams’ plan as firemen took turns to clamber up ladders positioned against the fragile walls, take a leg lock, and direct jets through the glassless windows into a mesmeric apparition of volcanic properties.