Wales Police has confirmed a fire at Shotton Lane Social Club - which was set to become an Islamic cultural centre - is being treated as suspicious.
Community leaders condemned what they believe is a 'hateful' attack by racist arsonists on the disused community club, which happened at around 4am on Friday (February 5). About 100 people in the surrounding area were forced to evacuate their homes as huge clouds of smoke and flames were blown toward properties by strong winds.
A joint police and fire service investigation has been launched, with CCTV footage studied and house-to-house enquires carried out. The cause of the blaze, which destroyed the empty building, has yet to be determined - but North Wales Police is treating the fire as suspicious.
Detective Chief Inspector Graham Talbot said: "The site continues to be secured as a crime scene by police. A structural engineer has assessed the building over the weekend and it is unsafe for anyone to enter. Once the site is safe to enter further forensic examination will be carried out. I am, therefore unable to establish at this time whether deliberate ignition was the cause. However, it is suspected at this stage and the investigation is being treated as such."
Resident Joe McGarry, who lives very close to the smouldering wreckage of the club, said he and his family, including three young children, had to leave their home at about 4.30am. He said: "We heard one of the walls fall down and thought it was the council recycling van at first. Then we saw the flames out of our daughter’s bedroom window. It was terrible, like something out of a film. My wife said she had never been so scared in all her life, because it was so close to our house."
The McGarrys had to leave their home immediately and were sent to Deeside Leisure Centre, where Flintshire County Council had set up a rest centre. About 30 people set up home there temporarily until emergency crews gave the all-clear for them to return to their homes, which were left without electricity or hot water. The rest went to stay with family or friends.
Fire crews from Deeside, Flint, Mold, Rhyl, Holywell and Wrexham were called to battle the fire, which took about six hours to bring under control. A section of Shotton Lane had been closed to motorists and pedestrians because the gutted building is structurally unsafe.
The club, which closed in August, was the proposed site of an Islamic centre. Monchab Ali, chairman of the Flintshire Muslim Cultural Society and owner of the Bengal Dynasty restaurant in Queensferry, was looking to buy the venue for £150,000, but it is now understood the group will look elsewhere. The plans divided public opnion and there was a protest march in Shotton on January 22 by the right-wing English Defence League.
One resident near the club, who also had to leave her home, asked not to be named for fear of reprisals. She said: "We were woken up by our neighbour banging on the door saying we had to get out. We left in our pyjamas because there wasn’t time to take anything with us, and now we’ve got no heating or water. Whoever has done this has put everyone’s lives at risk without caring about what they are doing. It’s because of all the controversy that has been whipped up about the plans for the club. We had people from the English Defence League marching down our street claiming it was theirs, and they were not even from round here. We’ve even had leaflets through our door telling us not to go to the Bengal Dynasty. It’s absolutely disgusting and I hope they catch whoever is responsible."
Cllr John Beard, chairman of Shotton Town Council, was woken at 6am as people living next to the centre were being evacuated into his neighbour’s house further down the road. He said: "It’s such a shock. It’s a hateful thing to do, whoever did this has no respect for human life or the effect it could have on people. What’s so sad is no plans had even be submitted for the Islamic centre. Some people didn’t like the idea, some were OK with it, and some didn’t care. This is meant to be a democratic society where we discuss things. It doesn’t help to have a couple of yobs inflame the situation."
Superintendent Dave Owens, of North Wales Police, said: "Because of the windy weather the fire took hold very quickly and was difficult to bring under control. There were also compressed air cylinders in the club, which popped. It was very close to houses and if the wind had been blowing in another direction people could have lost their homes."
Assistant Chief Constable Gareth Pritchard said: "North Wales Police launched a thorough investigation. We are also supporting the community to provide reassurance. The dangerous condition of the building has held up the investigation and the cause of the fire has not yet been determined."
Anyone with information should call police on 0845 607 1002 or CrimeStoppers on 0800 555 111.