I was simply doing my job, says fireman hero 60 years after Northern Ireland's worst air crash disaster
It should have been just another routine evening shift for fireman John Gordon as he kissed his wife Jane goodbye and drove five miles from home to Nutt’s Corner Airport.
But that night back in 1953 was a night he was destined never to forget.
Instead, this crash crew member at the old airfield became a decorated hero after he watched a British European Airways Vickers Viking come down in flames 30 yards away on the edge of the base as he sat at the wheel of his car on the Belfast Road.
Now 60 years later to the month, John has spoken in public for the first time about the horrific events he witnessed that night — and how they prompted him in to action.
“One minute I was driving alongside the plane as pilot Gordon Hartley brought this passenger flight from London in to land,” recalls John of the horror that happened in January 1953.
“Then I realised she was coming in short and wasn’t going to make the runway. When the crash came I ran instinctively to the rescue, climbing over a hedge and a fence from the Belfast Road to get there.
“Through the haze and the smoke I could see two people standing in the debris, bewildered and distressed. I led them away to safety from the flames and went back to comfort injured.
“I only did what I had been trained to do at the airport and by this time firemen colleagues had arrived so promptly and the fire was quickly put out.”
John, who will be 92 on January 25, still has vivid recall of everything that happened that night of Northern Ireland’s worst air crash leaving a total of 27 dead.
“What I did was simple stuff,” he declares.
The powers that be didn’t agree, however, and he was eventually presented with the Queen’s Commendation for Bravery.
The parchment hangs on a wall of the widower’s home in Pommeron Parade, Belfast.
“I fully anticipated that some of the eight survivors would turn up in the weeks and months after the tragedy to say thanks,” adds John, whose wife Jane, mother of his son Andrew, daughter Anne and late daughter Mary, is also now deceased.
“But I never heard from a single one of them.”
John admitted that his worst moment after the tragedy was boarding board a flight at the same airport to fly to London to give evidence at the board of inquiry.
Soon after the crash he took up a post as an officer with the Ministry of Agriculture and later I worked with Enterprise Ulster.”
During his time with Enterprise Ulster Mr Gordon received an MBE for his contribution to farm safety.
“John Gordon is a remarkable human being,” says Ross Workman, his former colleague in the agriculture department.
“Away from work and agriculture he was a Boy’s Brigade enthusiast and is remembered today as a fine captain of lst Omagh Company at Trinity Presbyterian Church.”
Northern Ireland’s worst aviation disaster happened on January 5, 1953. It happened as a BEA Vickers Viking aircraft, named Lord St Vincent, was approaching Nutts Corner airfield having flown from London. As the pilot took over from air traffic control, they informed him he was flying too high to safely reach the end of the runway. It is thought he may have come down sooner after overcompensating. The aircraft crashed and a total of 27 were killed and there were just eight survivors.