A couple last night described how they escaped death or injury after a massive blaze destroyed their home.
Catherine and Colin Donnelly and their two young children fled minutes before flames from a river of blazing fuel engulfed their house just outside Coalisland.
Eyewitnesses told how the fiery river spilled through the Brambles estate on the Stewartstown Road shortly after 8.30pm on Saturday.
The blaze, which is thought to have started accidentally, gutted the Donnellys’ house but the four occupants and 11 neighbouring families escaped unharmed.
Nine fire appliances from across Mid-Ulster raced to the scene but were held back by the fire’s intensity which, at its height, sent flames shooting 30ft in the air.
Amateur footage captured by one neighbour showed the street engulfed by massive flames and the effects of the blaze were clearly visible yesterday morning.
Two cars parked outside the Donnellys’ house were gutted while part of the roof had caved in and windows in neighbouring homes cracked in the intense heat.
There were scorch marks on the tarmac from where the fire had travelled down the street while several properties sustained smoke damage.
Although the Donnelly family has been left homeless by the blaze, Catherine told the Belfast Telegraph last night that she was relieved to escape without injury.
“We are all very lucky,” she said. “The damage to our house is all material damage and it can be replaced. The important thing is that we all got out unharmed.
“We all know it could have been so much worse. It was early in the evening when the fire started and had it been later at night we would have been in bed sleeping.”
The blaze is thought to have started in a garden shed and spread to nearby oil tanks, which were ruptured by the fire. Fuel seeping from the tanks was ignited, sending a river of flames spilling down the street: “Our neighbour’s garden shed caught fire and it spread to two oil tanks,” added Catherine. “Because our house is lower down, all the oil spilled into our garden. The flames lit up the side of our house and our two cars went on fire.
“The burning oil spilled down the road causing an inferno and when the fire engines first arrived they couldn’t get in because they were met by flames at the end of the road. It was just unbelievable.
“We were in the house when the fire first started but fortunately one of our neighbours came running over and banged on our door to warn us because they knew the oil tank was behind our house.
“Myself, my husband and our two children got out, and by the time we went across the road and into a neighbour’s house the oil tank had exploded and the flames were spreading into the next garden. Within five minutes the whole house was ablaze.”
Another family with three young children had to be rescued from their house by firefighters after it caught fire while two other families have since been moved.
One neighbour who captured images of the scene on his mobile phone said it was a miracle no-one was killed or seriously injured.
“The whole thing just started from a shed fire and spread from there,” said Connor McElhatton.
“There was just a river of fire running down the street. The fire was spread right across the road. It poured into the storm drains and they were also lit up by the flames. It was a serious blaze.
“The whole scene was pandemonium. People were in the street, children were screaming and the fire was roaring. What happened last night will stay with me for a long time.
“It is just so fortunate that it happened at the time it did. If it was later in the night then there would definitely have been fatalities because no-one would have seen it coming.”
Fire service appliances from as far away as Portadown and Lisburn rushed to the scene. The Station Commander for the Cookstown district, Paul McCloskey, said his crews had dealt with a major incident.
“This could have been a very serious situation,” he said. “The people living in one house had been alerted by a neighbour and had left moments before it caught fire.
“People living in another house opened their front door, saw the fire coming down the road, and went back into the house. Fortunately two of our firefighters saw what happened, broke through the flames and led that family away to safety.”