A MAJOR fire ripped through a derelict building at Gloucester Quays in a suspected arson attack.
The former offices for the shopping centre were attacked, for the second time in three weeks, yesterday at 4am.
And fire fighters from across the county battled against the huge blaze at St Ann Way for hours.
Watch commander Craig Haynes said: "When we arrived there was thick, black smoke everywhere. We couldn't get near it for a while. It was a major fire. If anyone had been in there they would have been dead very quickly. We didn't send fire fighters in because we knew the building was derelict. It has missing flooring and has become quite dangerous so we tackled it from outside for the safety of our officers."
The massive operation saw 7,000 litres of water a minute drawn from the nearby Gloucester and Sharpness Canal onto the flames every minute from an aerial pump.
Fire crews had to quickly smash their way through barriers designed to protect the site so that they could reach the building. No one is thought to have been inside.
They also closed off the major road for most of the day.
A police investigation has been launched into the suspected arson attack, which comes just three weeks after an attack on the same building on January 7.
Officers were poring over the site at lunchtime in a hunt for clues.
Richard Lockyer, station commander at Cheltenham West fire station, said: "We know that it is arson.
"This is because there were a number of separate fires. It was deliberate."
The derelict building, which had been used by Gloucester Quays as offices until the outlet mall opened, is patrolled by centre staff.
Manager Richard Rawlings said: "The site is part of the security patrols. In fact it was a security officer who found the smoke and raised the alarm.
"We have been keeping a close eye on the site and we put up security fencing but at the end of the day these people will still try to break in."
Developer Dick Bishop, who owns the nearby former malthouse site at Bakers Quay, said: "We check out our sites three or four times a day.
"We've got good security and it is all boarded up but you still can't stop people getting in if they are determined.
"They are usually sleeping rough in the buildings or looking for scrap metal."