3am blaze traps residents at top of Belfast apartment block
It could have been a scene from The Towering Inferno, as residents described their horror at being trapped on the top floor of one of the highest apartment blocks in Belfast after a fire broke out while they were sleeping yesterday morning.
Six people escaped injury in a dramatic rescue from the top floor of a high-rise block of flats after a fire was started maliciously in the early hours.
Residents were woken by smoke alarms at around 3.30am on the 16th floor of Grainne House, a Housing Executive block in the New Lodge area of north Belfast. The fire brigade was quickly on the scene and residents on the top three floors were evacuated.
Fire officer Martin McDonald said it was a “very dangerous” situation for residents and firefighters. “They had all been trapped in their flats due to the heavy smoke on the 16th floor,” he said.
“Once the windows in the flat broke, the wind had a big effect. It intensified the fire, but we were able to put all our training into practice and we got the fire extinguished fairly quickly.”
Grainne House is the tallest of the high-rise apartment blocks on the north Belfast estate and one of the tallest residential blocks in the city.
Elderly pensioner Joseph Brophy lives alone in a one-bedroom flat on the 16th floor of Grainne House, which has panoramic views over Belfast Lough and Cavehill.
But his home turned into a potential death trap in the early hours of yesterday morning when smoke billowed into his tiny hallway from a fire across the corridor.
“I was woken by the smoke alarm thinking it was my own bedside alarm, but when I went into the hallway I couldn’t see anything for smoke,” he said.
“I was afraid to open the door in case there were flames on the other side, so I shut myself into my living room.
“It was very scary. I didn’t know what was going on. I thought, ‘my only way of escape is to get wings and jump out that window’.”
Mr Brophy lived in Australia for 25 years, where he had experienced bushfires, but he said the fire in his high-rise home was more frightening.
“At least with a bushfire you are out in the open and have a chance of escaping,” he said.
“I was standing in here last night and I didn’t know what I was going to do.”
Fortunately, the fire service responded quickly to the incident and brought the elderly man and five other residents safely out of the building.
Neighbour Pat Dewer (54) and his partner were also |rescued from the fire. Mr Dewer, who suffers from the respiratory condition COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), was forced to wait on the |balcony of the 16th floor in his nightwear in the freezing cold as the biting wind swirled around the tower block.
“We’re pretty shaken up,” he said. “We went out on the balcony and closed the door behind us because the flat was filled with smoke.
“It was freezing cold, but that was better than breathing in the smoke.
“We could see the fire brigade arriving. We just waited until we heard them banging the door to rescue us.”
A spokesman for the NI Housing Executive said: “It appears that the fire was started maliciously and police are understood to have made an arrest.
“Temporary accommodation was offered to all residents affected, but this was refused.”
Most residents were able to return to their flats by midday yesterday.
The main damage was restricted to where the fire started in the living room of one of the top-floor flats, but there was significant smoke damage to the 16th floor.
Housing Executive staff were co-ordinating a clean up of the area yesterday.
Social Development Minister Alex Attwood praised the response to the fire.
He said: “I would also like to thank the emergency services, in particular the fire service and the police for dealing swiftly and effectively in this matter, which had the potential to be much more tragic.”
Sinn Fein councillor Conor Maskey also praised the response to the incident.
“The fire service dealt with the emergency very astutely and council officials kicked in very quickly to get a community centre open to provide respite for evacuated residents,” he said.