Terry Sutton was the only reporter on the scene the night of the Crypt restaurant fire.
He was alerted by chance because his neighbor from Whitfield, a volunteer firefighter, visited the scene in Bench Street, Dover, exactly 45 years ago today.
Seven people, including three children and a firefighter, were killed in the disaster, one of the city’s worst fire tragedies, which erupted in the early hours of Sunday, March 27, 1977.
Mr Sutton, to date a veteran Dover journalist and author, said: “I knew he had been called in an emergency and left in his car so I decided to follow him.
“When I arrived they were taking the bodies out, so it was quite distressing. Later that night the building collapsed and that’s when the firefighter was killed.
“Afterwards, the people of Dover were mystified as to how this fire could have happened.
“The restaurant was particularly popular during WWII, it was the place to be. It was also the safest restaurant as it was in a basement then so you could protect yourself during raids aerial.”
Nigel Collor, now Dover Councilor for the area, learned of the tragedy when he was turned away on his way to work that morning.
He said: “I was on my way to Aycliffe’s work at the Eastern Docks and became aware of a major problem when he was stopped by an AA patrol.
“They had been told to stop traffic at the York Street junction and I had to deviate via Ladywell. “I was told there had been a serious fire in the crypt.
“As the day progressed, more and more very sad information became available, particularly regarding the loss of life.
“I have been a guest at La Crypte several times, it was an excellent Berni Inn Steak House.”
Cllr Collor worked at the travel center of the hovercraft company Seaspeed at the time.
Rebecca Sawbridge was a 20-year-old student in teacher training at a college in Streatham at the time of the disaster.
She usually returned home to Dover at the weekends, but this time she stayed in south London.
His sister broke the news to him by telephone from the family home in Tower Hamlets.
Cllr Sawbridge, who is now also a ward member of Dover City Council, told KentOnline: “The Crypt was a very popular restaurant in the 70s and I used to go there regularly with my brother, sister and uncle.
“When I got home the following weekend I went to Bench Street and was shocked at the extent of the damage.
“This part of town was a very popular place for local nightlife at the time. You had a great pub, The Britannia, around the corner (now replaced by part of the St James development).
“What happened was devastating for everyone in the city because Dover was very tight-knit at the time.”
After the building was destroyed and the ruins cleared, the site was never rebuilt.
Only a gaping gap remains between what is now the current Europa Fish & Chips takeaway and the former Castle Amusements building. The latter had the Banksy Brexit mural on its side wall from 2017 to 2019.
Cllr Collor, also a Dover District Councilor, believes the site has not been redeveloped as the crypt, a listed building, is still there, albeit underground, so not in view.
A memorial plaque listing those who perished is a few yards away, on the slope wall of the town center end of the Townwall Street underpass.
In 2019, a third ward councilor, Graham Wanstall, co-organized the installation of this plaque.
It was unveiled at a 42nd anniversary ceremony attended by survivors, relatives of the victims and members of the Kent Fire and Rescue Service.
Cllr Wanstall now says: “It was the worst mass death at Dover since the Second World War and it is important to remember.
“That’s why I wanted a plaque to be put up while people are still alive to remember it and thousands of people in Dover still do.
“I never understood why there was no front plate.”
A relative of a survivor, Barry Davison, now says: “I don’t think we should ever forget this day and I’m glad a plaque has been placed.”
In 1977, at the age of 14, he woke up to be told by his family that his father, NCO John Davison, had fought the fire and was now injured but alive.
The Crypt restaurant fire occurred in the early hours of Sunday, March 27, 1977.
It had started in one of the downstairs bars and quickly spread to the upper floors through a number of voids.
It then spread to apartments in the building.
The alarm was raised at 2:49 a.m. by dog walker Peter Waters, who saw smoke coming out of the restaurant.
The first fire engine arrived at 2.55am and 20 in total were at the scene, from Dover, Folkestone, St Margaret’s-at-Cliffe, Whitfield and Deal.
At 4 a.m., nine people were evacuated from the burning building by firefighters, two of whom were killed.
Firefighters had gone inside to confirm everyone was there, but while checking part of the building collapsed, burying some of them.
An investigation found the fire was caused by a deep fryer’s main switch being left on, causing fractured wiring to overheat.
Coroner Wilfred Mowll entered a verdict of accidental death.
The rescuer who died when the roof collapsed while searching for trapped victims was chief firefighter John Sharp, 31.
He was married with two children, living in Canterbury and based full-time in Folkestone.
Mr. Sharp was posthumously awarded the Queen’s Commendation for Brave Conduct.
Three other people who died were from the same family and lived upstairs in the five-story building.
They were Marion Clay, 32, wife of titular Alec, and two of their children, six-year-old Shane Clay and 18-month-old Charlotte Clay.
Christine McCaughan, who was the daughter of Marion and the brother of Shane and Charlotte, then aged 14, escaped the fire.
A family friend who was there that night, Phyllis Conlon, 43, died at Buckland Hospital three days later and her five-year-old granddaughter Janusia Ashton had also perished.
Anita Lee, 19, a live-in caregiver and restaurant worker, was the seventh to die.
Because there had been a family party the night before, more people were staying overnight at the property.
The crypt building dates back over 900 years to medieval times with extensions built later.
The business changed hands several times but in December 1971 it was taken over by Rabb Inns.