A local care worker has been hailed a hero after saving the life of a Newtownards pensioner by rescuing her from her smoke-filled home.
Community care worker Sandra Cowan (40) was making a routine morning call to client Maureen Dorrian (71) on February 1, when she realised something was wrong.
"When I got to the gate I could hear an alarm going and as I got closer to the house it got louder. I looked through the window to see what was going on but couldn't see anything," Sandra explained.
The gravity of the situation became apparent when she opened the front door and thick black smoke poured out of the building.
Without hesitation and unsure as to what awaited her, Sandra stepped into the house and began searching for Maureen.
"I started to look on the bathroom and kitchen floors but couldn't see her. I was shouting her name and then I heard her coughing and she shouted back, so I knew she was conscious.
"I went to the front door and called 999, then I lifted Maureen up out of bed and helped her out to the front path. It was freezing out there so I put my coat round her."
Sandra made her way back into the house for a second time to get a chair for Maureen to sit on while she waited for the emergency services to arrive.
Maureen has very little memory of the incident but remembers hearing a roaring noise which she thought was the wind. It was in fact a fire which started in the kitchen bin.
Stephen Boyd, district commander, Bangor district Fire and Rescue Service, said although the fire had almost burned itself out by the time firefighters arrived, the house was full of smoke.
"If it was wasn't for the care worker arriving when she did, we believe that circumstances would have been very different for Mrs Dorrian," he said.
Despite having no memory of trying to escape the blaze, handprints on the walls and doors show that Maureen had tried to find her way out of the property; making her way back to her bedroom when she couldn't get out.
Maureen expressed her gratitude to the woman she credits with saving her life. "Sandra was very calm and she got me outside. Thank God she got me out because I couldn't. She's great, she's a total star."
Sandra's daughter Janice Andrews (46) spoke about her mother's lucky escape. "It was unbelievable, I mean minutes would have made so much of a difference. The heat was intense: the smoke alarms were going off but they were all melted."
Maureen was taken to the Ulster Hospital, Dundonald, where she spent three days in ICU and a further two weeks on the ward.
Although Maureen has recovered from the physical effects of the fire, she still bears the mental scars from the ordeal. Her daughter Heather McBain (43) explained: "Mum doesn't like anyone talking about how the fire started, she gets upset. She's still frightened, she won't sleep with the doors closed."
Calling Sandra an "angel", Janice said the entire family are so grateful to Sandra for giving them time with the mother they "might not have had."