The explosions were receding, but the smoke billowing into the cellar was oily, smelly and seemed to be getting thicker all the time. “We’ve got to get out of here!” a man called in panic. A stampede started for the door. Miss Fitzsimmons tried to stop them, shouting for them to wait for the “All Clear,” but they ignored her. They clattered up the stairs towards the back door and pushed out into the street.
Emily crawled out from under the table, but obeyed Miss Fitzsimmons. She noted the way smoke billowed in as the crowd of men opened the door and watched in horrified fascination the way it seethed along the ceiling.
Exclamations of amazement and horror from the men who had forced their way outside soon distracted her. The honk and wail of sirens was louder than ever. Someone said something about one of the Navy’s oil tanks being hit. Against a background of more excited shouting, someone stuck his head back inside the Mission and shouted, “The cinema’s burning!”
The sirens seemed to be converging on them. Miss Fitzsimmons stood uncertainly at the foot of the stairs for a moment, then she turned to the Cook and Emily and ordered, “Better get some tea made and prepare the mobile tea wagon. Fire-fighting is thirsty work.” Wearing her tin helmet, Miss Fitzsimmons went up the stairs into the street as the “All Clear” wailed.
Emily and Cook got the tea wagon ready and together rolled it out onto the street. Emily wasn’t prepared for what she found. The smoke from the burning oil tanks had obliterated the beautiful afternoon. Instead of sunshine and blue sky, heavy, stinking black clouds turned the sky orange. From nearer at hand, a greyish but foul-smelling smoke gushed into the alley from the main street. This was laden with ash and burning embers.
When they reached the corner of the street, they could see the cinema itself: the roof was completely gone already, only the steel girders remaining, while flame and smoke rose from the cauldron underneath. Several fire engines were pouring water into this fire without apparent effect. Bizarrely, the blue plush seats of the theatre had somehow been blown right out of the cinema and lay scattered about the street and even on the roofs of nearby houses, as if a giant had sprinkled them from the sky. Many people had converged on the cinema to search for the survivors among the rubble, accompanied by urgent shouts and agitated orders.
“Full of children,” someone murmured. “An afternoon matinee for children.”
The ambulances started arriving one after another. And then the first of the hysterical mothers appeared on the scene. The police started to cordon off the site. A sobbing mother was brought by a constable towards the tea wagon. Miss Fitzsimmons took her in her arms. “M’ youngest!” the woman kept sobbing. “M’ youngest!”
The rescue workers, dazed and black with soot, started to collect around the tea wagon. The sweat rolled down their blackened faces and when they tried to wipe it off on the back of the sleeves, they only smeared the filth around. They stank of sweat and smoke, and their hair stood on end from oil and ash. The whites of their eyes stood out.
“Were they all killed?”
“Wasn’t there a shelter?”
“They were just filing out.”
“Direct hit! Didn’t have a chance!”
“Were there no survivors?”
“A handful at most.”
In the rubble under the iron girders, the flames were gradually brought under control, and the fire engines started to withdraw one at a time. Their job done here, men climbed aboard their vehicles, and with a clang of bells hurried off to the next job. There were fires burning all over Portsmouth. But the ambulances were still shuttling back and forth between the cinema and the nearest hospital.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish