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A blackened house and a probe that’s gone cold

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 22/08/2012

Charred remains: the complex in which Betty and Deirdre McGirr died after an arson attack
Charred remains: the complex in which Betty and Deirdre McGirr died after an arson attack

It was an attack which horrified a community and claimed the lives of a devoted mother and daughter.

But more than four months later, police appear no closer to catching the arsonist who killed Betty and Deirdre McGirr.

The women died when an inferno — which had been started deliberately — swept through a block of flats in Dungannon.

Despite a high-profile PSNI investigation, no-one has been arrested in connection with the blaze on April 14.

The fire is thought to have been started by thugs who set light to wheelie-bins at the rear of the flats at Dunlea Vale.

Deirdre’s boyfriend, Jose Cunha, escaped after jumping to safety through a first floor window. Police later said it was a miracle he survived.

The charred remains of the flat still dominate the quiet cul-de-sac where the tragedy unfolded.

On Monday children on their summer holidays played in the sunshine just yards from the wreckage.

Wooden rafters, still blackened by scorch damage, are visible through the collapsed roof of Deirdre’s top floor flat.

Metal shutters have been fixed to the windows, while wood panelling blocks off the porch and front of the complex.

The blaze took hold around 10pm on a Saturday night while Betty, a 71-year-old widow, was visiting Deirdre (38).

In the aftermath of the fire, detectives issued an appeal for information in tracing two men seen in the vicinity. Yet months later, the PSNI hunt appears to have gone cold.

Fresh questions about the investigation emerged after it was revealed that arsonists target someone’s home every day in Northern Ireland.

In 90% of arson attacks on residential property, the fire-setters are never caught.

Among them is the McGirrs’ killer(s). Neighbours say there is little sign of much progress in the investigation.

A woman living close by said: “The police were here at the time but I haven’t heard anything more whatsoever.

“From what we can see, they don’t seem any nearer catching them four months later.”

Just two weeks after the McGirrs were killed, a house in nearby Castlecaulfield was set on fire after burning bins were placed near the front.

Ulster Unionist MLA Tom Elliott said the arsonists had sparked fear in the community.

He said it was concerning that a double killer was still on the loose in his Fermanagh/ South Tyrone constituency.

“People were shocked when they heard the McGirr case was an arson attack, but clearly when there has been no resolution, people continue to be concerned that a double killer is on the loose, and that the person or people responsible could actually strike again,” he said.

“When you look at the overall picture [of detections], it doesn’t give you a lot of hope that it will be resolved.”

The Belfast Telegraph asked the PSNI to outline the progress of its probe into the deaths.

We asked if detectives were making progress and if they were confident of bringing those responsible to justice.

We also asked to speak to a senior officer, but no-one was available for interview. Instead, the PSNI re-issued a statement appealing for information.

“The police investigation into the deaths of Betty and Deirdre McGirr is continuing,” it said.

“Detectives are following a number of lines of inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the fire at Dunlea Vale on April 14. Police believe the fire was started deliberately but are still working to determine exactly what happened.

“Police would ask anyone in the area who knows anything about what happened to come and talk to us.”

Anyone with information can contact the special incident room at Dungannon police station on 028 8775 0559, or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111

Flames that could have killed ... five incidents where people’s lives were in danger

Ballybeen Estate, Dundonald, July 2012

Brian McArthur escaped injury after an oil tank was set on fire at the back of his house. The blaze caused extensive damage to the Claggan Gardens dwelling in the heart of the Ballybeen estate.

Mr McArthur described how three gas cylinders beside the tank went up in flames.

“I went to the back door to see what was going on but when I opened the double doors the flames pushed me back,” he said.

“I shut the door, grabbed my two dogs and left the house.”

Ballaghbeg Park, Newcastle, July 2012

Thugs tried to burn an 88-year-old woman out of her Co Down home. Eileen Hanna, who suffered a stroke two years ago and has hearing problems, escaped when smoke alarms alerted her.

“I was getting into bed before 5am and the fire alarm went off,” Eileen said. “When I got to the door the tail end of the curtain was away up in flames and the lino was on fire too. I said to myself, ‘I will have to make a move’. I got a pot of water and threw it on it. I was on my walking stick.”

Westbourne Street, east Belfast, June 2012

A young mother said she was left too scared to stay at home after an arson attack at her house.

Laurie-Ann Thompson (20), her partner Jamie Axon (21) and their nine-week-old daughter, Mylie, narrowly escaped injury after thugs tried to burn them out.

A bin filled with rubbish was set alight and pushed up against the back door.

“The baby's bedroom door was open and I could see the glow of the flames,” she said. “The bathroom window was open and the smoke was coming in.”

Rathcoole estate, Newtownabbey, March 2012

A mother dropped her baby to safety from an upstairs window after their house was set alight in an arson attack. Amie Alexander escaped through a bathroom window from her burning home in Newtownabbey's Rathcoole estate.

She was forced to drop 14-month-old daughter Holly to her brother, who was waiting in the garden below, before escaping down a ladder with her three-year-old son.

Their pet chihuahua, called Lola, died.

Dunsilly Terrace, Antrim, June 2012

A stolen car was set alight outside politician Ken Wilkinson’s house at Dunsilly Terrace in Antrim, causing damage to the front of his property.

“I was informed by the Fire Service that there was a gas cylinder in it — if it had exploded, there could have been fatalities,” the PUP spokesman said.

“It was attempted murder, nothing more and nothing less,” he claimed.

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