RESIDENTS were left fearing the worst when clouds of black smoke could be seen filling the skies in Workington town centre.

Firefighters and police were alerted to the blaze at the former Fusion nightclub building on Ladies' Walk in Workington shortly before 11pm on Saturday night.

Eye witnesses reported seeing thick black smoke coming from the empty building adjacent to M&S Foodhall.

Police have since launched an investigation and have arrested three men on suspicion of arson.

A 28-year-old man, 21-year-old man and a 20-year-old man - all from Workington - have been arrested.

One of the first to report it were a couple who live across the road in Curwen Lodge.

The man, who wished to remain anonymous, said: "We reported it. All we saw at first was smoke, next minute we rang 999.

"My daughter told the fire brigade to come and my wife and daughter over the road.

"Next minute there were police, then two more, then a fire engine. Next minute there were five, six, seven.

"We didn't know what it was. It could have been gas and we thought, if it goes bang where is it going to go?

"We thought the building was going to fall. It was scary."

The couple praised the work of the emergency services.

"It could have been a lot worse. Everything was done right, everything was dealt with properly.

"There were fire engines, a cherry picker, police, hoses - everything."

The man's partner was also left scared during the incident.

"We didn't know if it would go bang. My granddaughter lives down there, so it was very scary," she said.

"Everybody was across the road was watching it, everybody knew it was bad."

Eye witnesses described seeing a young man being pulled to safety from the building.

Nearby resident Terry King, 56, who was evacuated from the Impact flats close to the blazing building, said: "My daughter came back from walking the dog at about 11pm and she said, 'There's all smoke coming from Fusion'.

"We heard banging, but we thought it was the skips at the back. Then fire crews arrived and smashed she door (into Fusion) and dragged a young man out.

"By about 11.20pm we were told we needed to evacuate and to meet at the police station. Five houses were evacuated and 17 flats.

"There must have been 150 people watching. We were told we wouldn't be allowed back into the flats until 8am."

A small hole could be seen in Mr King's top yesterday, as he described being hit by some debris from the fire.

"It was surreal. This morning there was a realisation that it could have been so much worse," he explained

"Residents are just very thankful. It was a bit close for comfort."

Friend Richard Ashcroft said residents have long campaigned for something to be done about the empty buildings in the area, which he says have become a hub for anti-social behaviour.

After being evacuated from their homes residents were then taken to Workington Leisure Centre, before being moved to Allerdale House as water supplies to the centre had stopped due to being closed during the lockdown.

Nathaniel Hooten, area manager for Cumbria Fire & Rescue Service, who was on scene helping to coordinate the fire response, said: "The initial outlook from the crews first on the scene was that it was a large fire that could be seen from the surrounding areas.

"It was a large, substantial fire. There was obviously the potential for the fire to spread to adjoining buildings, which could have an impact on the local area."

Mr Hooten said at the height of the fire that 50 fire personnel were at the scene, representing 12 different stations.

Residents in the area praised the response of the emergency services.

Anyone with any information is asked to contact police on 101 or call Crimestoppers, anonymously, on 0800 555 111, asking to speak to an officer from the West Cumbria Crime and Safeguarding Team.