HUNDREDS of artefacts and treasures have been rescued from Gallery Oldham after a burst in the central heating system sent gallons of water cascading through the building.

Staff were greeted by the devastation as they arrived for work yesterday and worked for several hours with a crew from Ashton Fire Station to pump out thousands of litres of water and salvage the gallery's stored collection including rare and precious high value items.

It's understood the cold weather caused an issue in the gallery's air handling unit, which is located in the roof space, sometime on Sunday and water flowed for over 12 hours down three floors into the basement where much-loved and valuable artefacts are stored.

Green watch crew manager Gary Park, who led the rescue operation for Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service, said water levels in the lift shaft were up to seven foot deep.

Both the gallery and the Naked Bean Cafe, also damaged in the flood, are closed for the rest of week.

Senior curator Sean Baggaley said staff acted quickly to assess the damage and called in the fire service to assist with the operation.

He said he couldn't reveal the worth of the collection caught up in the drama or any specific artefacts involved at this stage but said it was all salvageable and staff were working with other gallery and museum staff from across Greater Manchester to dry out the collection.

Items currently being exhibited haven't been affected by the flood but there has been damage to flooring and roof tiles.

"Staff first knew something was wrong when they discovered they were walking on sodden carpets between the foyer and the cafe and quickly realised what had happened.

"They went down to the basement to see how bad things were and discovered the lift shaft was full of water.

"They called the fire service to assist and I have to say they were a fantastic help.

"The amount of water coming out was unbelievable. Luckily the lift shaft acted as a sink which the water drained into.

"We used our wet vac system and I lost count of how many times we emptied it.

"A team of us have been trained for these kind of incidents such as flood disaster planning and we have watched case studies from other places that have done it before so we put those plans into action.

"We closed the gallery and used the space to dry stuff out, laying it on tables and floors and blowing air over it."

Sean said it's hard to tell at the moment how much has been affected and loss assessors were currently assessing the damage but there were a large number of prints, watercolours and oil paintings.

"We have a window this week when we can get things dry and they should not come to any harm," he said.

"It's amazing how resilient these things are. The main thing is we haven't lost anything and there is nothing damaged beyond repair.

"One of our historic banners was involved and you're always nervous when something old gets wet but as we unrolled it was fine, the dye hadn't run and it just needed drying out.

"Anything we can't deal with we will bring in a specialist company to help with.

"We've had fantastic help from other galleries and museums. We're part of a network and we've had assistance, equipment and staff from Manchester Art Gallery, Bolton Art Gallery and the Museum of Lancashire who sent conservators to help out."

He praised staff for their quick-thinking actions and said despite the obvious initial horror of discovering the flood, they got on with the salvage operation.

"The adrenalin just kicked in," he said.

"They arrived at work to a scene of running water and everyone just dived in and helped. Staff were still there at 7pm feeling as though they had done everything they should have done and it will all be ok."

Crew Manager Parks said it was delicate operation and one they were proud to have helped out with.

He said: "When we go to commercial premises in these types of situations we normally deal with the critical stage to isolate electrics and then hand over to those involved and the insurance but in this instance because of the value to the community we stayed as long as we could and helped out where we could.

"We assisted with removing items from the storeroom.

"The staff were obviously upset by what had happened."

The gallery is home to an impressive historic Fine Art collection - including William Turner’s watercolour painting Bellinzona: The Bridge over the Ticino - consisting of over 550 oil paintings, over 12,000 social and industrial history items and has been collecting artworks and objects since 1883.

It also has in its archives over 80,000 natural history specimens, 3,000 archaeological artefacts, 15,000 photographs and a large number of books, pamphlets and documents.