Photos of blaze ripping through York Minster in 1984 to go on display

<span>The exhibition includes photographs taken by a neighbour through a bedroom window.</span><span>Photograph: N Hilton Scott/Chapter of York: Reproduced by kind permission</span>
The exhibition includes photographs taken by a neighbour through a bedroom window.Photograph: N Hilton Scott/Chapter of York: Reproduced by kind permission

Dramatic photographs showing just how close York Minster came to being destroyed by fire after a freak lightning bolt are to go on public display to mark the day’s 40th anniversary.

Many of the images have not been widely seen before. They include photographs taken by a neighbour through a bedroom window, which vividly show the intensity of the blaze at its height.

The images will be part of an exhibition at the minster, one of the world’s most magnificent cathedrals, which also includes personal memories and examples of historic fire-damaged furniture.

They shine light on the horror and drama of a fire that ripped through the south transept roof after a lightning strike in the middle of the night.

Kirsty Mitchell, York Minster’s curator, said the fire was an important moment in the cathedral’s history. “It was absolutely pivotal,” she said. “It is also an important event in York’s wider memory as well.

“Pulling this exhibition together has been a really different experience because you are very aware of that collective memory.

“Hearing people’s stories and seeing people’s pictures has been hugely emotional and really powerful.”

At 2.30am on 9 July 1984, the fire alarm at York Minster was triggered when a bolt of lightning hit the roof.

Firefighters were on the scene in just four minutes, but the blaze took hold quickly and by 3am about half of the south transept roof was on fire.

Soon firefighters from 12 stations across Yorkshire were there, running hoses from the minster to the river.

Clergy who lived onsite, ran into the building to save precious items. “There are brilliant stories of people carrying out enormous carpets and huge pieces of furniture,” said Mitchell. “Or trying to remove an altar cross only to realise it’s locked and alarmed and they have to get the key.

“It’s these human, almost mundane details, which are absolutely fascinating.”

Mitchell said the building came perilously close to complete destruction. “People afterwards talk about what might have happened if the wind had been in a different direction.”

Firefighters also took the tactical decision to focus jets of water on supporting beams, with the intention of collapsing the roof in the hope it would lessen the spread.

The roof did fall at 4am and about an hour later the fire was surrounded and at 5.24am was under control.

“In many ways it was quite quick although I’m sure it didn’t feel like it. It was awful to watch but straight away there was this sense of practicality, people knew that they could put it back together again.”

People in the city donated old towels and linens to mop up water and in an effort to carry on as normal the morning service even took place – in the nextdoor St Michael le Belfrey church.

The restoration task afterwards was a huge one, with discussions taking place about whether to rebuild the roof using concrete or steel rather than timber. There was also a suggestion that the roof might not be replaced, leaving it as a memorial.

“That would have been one way of doing it but doesn’t speak to the essence of the building, which is that it is a working one,” said Mitchell.

“It was an interesting moment around restoration and it was decided to use timber and other original materials. It was the minster’s own team which did the work using techniques their medieval predecessors would have used.”

John David, who has worked there for more than 40 years and is master mason emeritus, was part of the team on the night and recalled it being a “shocking and memorable” experience.

“But by the next morning, when we could see that the rest of the minster had been saved, despair turned into an eagerness to get on with the restoration. We had the skills here and it was our job.”

Out of the Ashes at York Minster opens on 29 June