It was a blaze that brought trains to a standstill and threatened to destroy a company that has been in Wolverhampton for 117 years.
On a Leap Day that Henry Carver will never forget – February 29 2012 – the headquarters of his family’s business was consumed in a fire that was seen for miles around.
Many thought it would be the end of Carvers Building Supplies, the company that has sponsored Wolverhampton’s annual charity marathon for years.
The blaze had started in a wood-burning stove at Carvers in Little’s Lane on the outskirts of the city centre, and the company’s products, such as paints and timber, went up in smoke.
But a year on, Carvers is going strong and still employing around 200 people, the vast majority of whom were there on that fateful day.
Work has now started on replacing the warehouse with a new “drive-through” one that will allow people to drive right up to the shelves and load their vehicles.
A second phase will see a “builders’ village” created, expanding previous trading facilities and offering space for other businesses to rent space.
Managing director Henry Carver, aged 53, said: “I still get an eerie feeling when I see video footage of the fire.
“At that time, the only thing we were thinking about was making sure everyone was safe.
“It was only the next day, after a sleepless night, that we started to consider what would have to happen next with insurance.
“Our first decision was not to take the 75 per cent offer from the insurance company to do an orderly close of the business.
“Quite apart from the obligation we felt to staff and to Wolverhampton, we knew this was a company that was profitable and had been profitable during a recession.
“There was no reason to not be able to build something better.”
Father-of-three Mr Carver and his 49-year-old cousin David, a director of the firm, are the fifth generation of the Carver family to run the company since it was started by Harry Carver with help from his brother Horace in 1896.
Around 90 firefighters worked to stop the flames spreading 30 yards to where liquid petroleum gas tanks are stored at the site.
A 660ft cordon was set up, and trains were forced to stay clear of Wolverhampton.
Around 700 students were evacuated from the high-rise student village Victoria Halls and children left Woden Primary School. The Maltings Mobility Centre was also evacuated.
Homeowners near the school in Springfield Road were forced to retreat indoors due to the heat.
Two weeks earlier, the company had put a new roof on the warehouse, which was destroyed in the blaze.
It took two hours for the landmark building to burn to the ground.
Henry Carver reacting to the fire at his firm last year
Staff today recalled watching as their place of work went up in flames.
Operations manager Paul Hipkiss, 51, of Bushbury, said: “We’ve come a long way from the fire, when a lot of people were worried they might lose their jobs. I was working 60-hour weeks afterwards as we get things back up and running.
“I was in the ops office when the fire started, and after we got everyone out of the building, a colleague tried to put the fire out. I was passing him extinguishers but we realised it was a losing battle.”
Timber salesman Matt Lloyd, 26, of Woodcross Street, Sedgley, has worked for the company for 10 years.
He said: “At first, we thought the fire brigade would just put the fire out, and then we’d be able to go back to work, but that idea soon went out the window.
“We were fortunate because we have the other Carvers site at Neachell’s Lane in Willenhall.
“Customers were offering to give us things to help, and people were offering to pay their accounts up, which was very kind.”
Timber yard operator Paul Rhodes, 42, of Cotswold Road, Parkfields, said: “We got everybody out and made sure they were all safe. It was only then that the shock of what was happening set in.”
Building work on the new warehouse started last month, and it is hoped that the scheme will be completed by the end of July.
Steel footings for the building will be delivered next month.
The next phase will be a new store with the builders’ village, which, it is hoped, will be ready early next year.
Mr Carver said he wanted to thank Wolverhampton City Council for its speedy response to his planning application, which he said helped to get the rebuild under way within months of the blaze.