Belfast Telegraph

Bonfire wrecked my home - I watched them build it, now I'm sitting watching men rebuild my gutted house

Sparks from an Eleventh Night bonfire wrecked Lily Turtle's house. She just can't wait to get back home, the pensioner tells Laurence White

Every day 73-year-old Lily Turtle sits on the sofa in her daughter's house and looks across the expanse of grass in Belfast's Hopewell Square at the ruins of what was once her home. Scaffolding has been erected at the front of the property, which is now virtually a shell after the roof caught fire when embers from an Eleventh Night bonfire were blown onto it.

In all, three houses in the terrace which forms one side of the square were damaged in the blaze and Lily and her two-year-old great-granddaughter Skyla were fortunate to escape uninjured.

"I just want back into my home," Lily says as she gazes out the window at the workmen beginning extensive repairs.

"It was my home for more than 20 years. I moved once to a brand new house nearby, but I only stayed a couple of months. I couldn't really settle. A lot of my friends are in this area of the Shankill and I just loved my little house".

Lily and Skyla were asleep in an upstairs bedroom when the house caught fire.

"I often go to bed early and maybe watch television for a while. We had both fallen asleep and never heard any of the commotion outside after the bonfire was lit. Usually my granddaughter Britney stays with me but she was out that night, which was lucky".

"The first I knew anything was wrong was when my grandson Blake Watters burst in the door and ran into our bedroom. He grabbed the wee one and shouted: 'Granny, run down the stairs quickly, the house is on fire'. I rushed out so quickly I didn't even see the fire, and then afterwards I was squealing and crying, thinking of what could have happened to us."

Blake had been watching the bonfire festivities when he noticed smoke coming from the terrace of houses opposite his own home.

His mum Diane - Lily's daughter - says: "He shouted to me that his granny's house was on fire and then he just ran across the field. Another young lad had got a ladder and climbed up on the roof to attempt to dampen it down with buckets of water, but he slipped and burned his chest on the hot roof tiles."

Lily was left standing in just the clothes she had grabbed before fleeing her home, which is owned by the Housing Executive.

Everything on the top floor of the property was lost in the fire, and it is those personal items Lily misses most.

"There were a lot of photographs and wee presents that my daughters and grandchildren had bought me for Christmas and birthdays. I had them all up in the bedrooms and now they are all gone," she explains.

Her daughter points out that one of Lily's first concerns after getting to safety was finding out if her packets of rolling tobacco had survived. "She had the firemen looking for them and they found the packets under some of the debris," she says.

Diane adds: "Neighbours rallied around the next day and helped us get some of the furniture and other belongings out from downstairs. These included a new cooker and a suite, but everything has been damaged by the smoke. Some of the neighbours washed the items several times and we thought that might have got rid of the smell, but it hasn't. They may have to be thrown out. They are in storage at the minute and we will have to see how things go."

Lily laughs as she recalls how she used to stand at her door watching the preparations for the Eleventh Night.

"I saw the young lad building the bonfire and now I am sitting on the other side of the square watching the men rebuilding my home," she says.

She says the pyre was not as tall as in some previous years. "In past years I used to watch the bonfire on the Eleventh Night from my own home before going on to bed."

It is obvious that the square is the focal point of Twelfth celebrations in the area, as various flags bedeck many of the houses. A large Ulster flag and red, white and blue decorations hang outside her daughter's home, where she now spends most of her time.

A number of loyalist murals have also been painted in the area and sit somewhat incongruously alongside another series of paintings depicting social issues and including a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt, the longest serving American First Lady, whose husband Franklin D Roosevelt was President for four terms, from 1933-45.

Lily has four daughters, three of whom live in the locality, and she has been moving between their homes since the fire. Other relatives also live close by, including a niece who lives in the same terrace as Lily's ruined home.

Lily admits she finds it difficult to get to sleep at night after the trauma of the blaze. "I have some medicine I got in the chemist's to help me sleep, but it doesn't really work. I go to bed early, but often I waken up with a start in the middle of the night. It tires me out. I will have to make an appointment to see my GP to see if he can help me," she says.

Diane points out that her mother did not sleep for almost 24 hours after the blaze. "It was the Twelfth night before she went to bed again. She was obviously in shock and just kept staring over at her ruined home," she explains.

A large television is on in the living room of the terraced home, but Lily pays little attention to it. "The way I feel, I cannot even get interested in any of the programmes. I just sit and stare out the window," she says.

Lily stresses that neighbours have rallied round. "They have been brilliant. My house used to be busy with people calling in all the time and now they are coming to my daughter's house to see me," she adds.

"I know that some people have been organising fundraising events to help me and the other people whose homes were damaged. Wee football teams up the Shankill have all been raising money and another man is holding an event in the local Linfield Supporters Club this weekend and donating the profits."

Lily had no contents insurance, but her daughters have bought her new clothes and some furniture to keep her possessions in. "I have some other clothes that were taken from the house, but they are smoke-damaged and are no use any more," she explains.

Some years ago other properties on the other side of the square were damaged when sparks from a bonfire landed on the roofs, but the siting of the bonfire in the middle of the square followed advice from the Housing Executive and the Fire Service.

Lily's family blame strong winds for causing the blaze at her home and describe it as a freak accident.

The other residents affected by the blaze have moved out of the square into alternative accommodation, but Lily is adamant that she won't be moving away.

"I have been told it could be three months or maybe six months before the damage is repaired. So I will just keep looking out the window, watching the workmen until it is finished. I want to get back into my own home," she adds.

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