It's a first class day for Melanie Grimsley... and she dedicates her honours degree to the sister she lost in tragic car blaze
Ivan Little attends the inspirational fire survivor’s graduation day
Courageous Melanie Grimsley, the Fermanagh woman who was at the centre of a hard-fought, six-year legal battle as a child over the mystery car fire which left her with horrific burns and killed her sister, is starting a new job soon… as a lawyer.
Her apprenticeship will be served in the offices of the solicitor who represented her throughout her lengthy struggle for compensation.
Melanie (29), who got a first-class honours degree in law at Ulster University’s Magee campus in Londonderry, said: “I can’t wait to get to work, but there’s a lot more studying to be done too. I really want to help other people because so many people have helped me.”
After the graduation ceremony, Melanie immediately dedicated her degree to her sister Amanda, who perished in the fire which broke out in the Grimsley family’s Austin Maestro car seconds after the children’s mum, Pamela, popped into a shop for milk in April 1988.
Melanie, who was just two at the time, was on fire when she was plucked to safety by local man Oliver Quinn, but he was unable to save her sister, who was almost three years old.
The cause of the blaze has never been firmly established despite a series of tests by independent experts, though Melanie’s lawyers always argued it was started by a loose connection in an interior courtesy light.
It wasn’t until January 10, 1994, that the compensation claim finally made it to the High Court in Belfast, and on day two of the proceedings, it was announced that the case had been settled after protracted overnight talks between lawyers for all the parties, and Melanie was awarded undisclosed damages.
The court case was front page news all over Ireland, but Melanie said that as a seven-year-old, she was terrified by all the legal trappings and the cold grandeur of the Law Courts building in Chichester Street.
Now the mother-of-two is poised to return to the courts during her apprenticeship as a solicitor.
“During my law course I had to go into courts on a regular basis and the fear has gone,” said Melanie, who after a number of different jobs, mainly as a secretary and an administrator, decided to become a full-time law student at the Ulster University in September 2012.
Melanie said: “It was after my book, Beauty for Ashes, was published that I started to think about going in a new direction. The book had been a way of dealing with my past and once I did that, it seemed to be the right time and the right thing to do to take a step forward and think about the future.”
What made her studies tougher than for most of her Magee-based colleagues was the fact that she had to travel three days a week to Derry from her home in Kesh in Co Fermanagh and back again.
The 52-mile journey in each direction took a total of two-and-a-half hours every day, with Melanie clocking up 300 miles a week during the worst weather and along twisty mountainous roads.
She said: “I was determined to be back home in time to see my sons Will, who’s now seven, and Leo, who’s five. However, there were times when I thought about giving up my studies because it was really stressful and I sometimes questioned the wisdom of what I was doing.
“I was leaving home in the dark and arriving home in the dark and it was tiring in the extreme.
“And after spending time with the boys, I then had to settle down to several hours of poring over my course work. But the boys were as good as gold.
“I told them they had to get to bed because I had to go downstairs to do my homework. They thought it was funny that their mummy was going to school.”
Melanie’s results saw her finishing among the top students in her year, and she won prizes along the way for her dissertation and an essay on human rights.
She said she has no regrets.
“Despite the hardships, it was a hugely enjoyable experience,” she added. “I loved law from the minute I started my studies.”
Melanie found the graduation ceremony emotional because she was thinking of Amanda throughout it.
“But the boys made me laugh afterwards,” she added. “They told me they were playing with their Nintendos during the ceremony but stopped when I came up in front of the audience.”
Melanie is looking forward to the next phase of her career and is happy to have found a position nearer home, though she will still have to travel to Derry from time to time.
Her apprenticeship will be served with the Murnaghan Fee solicitors firm in Enniskillen, where Donal Fee has been in her corner for most of her life.
Melanie said: “I couldn’t ask for a better company with whom to learn my trade, and Mr Fee has been tremendous to me from my earliest days.
“I will be with the firm for part of the year and at graduate school in Derry at other times.”
After the settlement of her claim 21 years ago, Mr Fee gave Melanie all the files in the case, which ran to thousands of papers, but she never read them — until recently.
She said: “I couldn’t bring myself to look at them for years. But once I started to study law, I resolved to go through them with a more informed eye so that I could understand what I was reading.
“It was very hard, very upsetting, to see so much that I hadn’t really remembered, which wasn’t surprising given the age I was when the fire happened.”
Melanie, who also found photographs of herself which she hadn’t seen for decades, sustained horrific injuries in the fire. Doctors said they were among the most extensive they’d ever seen.
She had dozens of skin grafts and countless stitches to her face and body, and her hands were reconstructed by specialist medical teams.
Melanie also had to cope with cruel taunts and comments from people in the street and in shops.
At the launch of her book in Enniskillen, she had an emotional reunion with Roy Millar, the surgeon who treated her for years, and with her rescuer Oliver Quinn.
Melanie regularly gives inspirational talks about her life to church and women’s groups throughout Northern Ireland
But she recently had an uplifting boost of her own.
After she was a guest at a charity lunch in the House of Lords in London, the Deputy President of the UK Supreme Court, Baroness Hale of Richmond, got to hear about her from a friend who was at the function.
Melanie explained: “I’d told the Baroness’s friend that I really admired Lady Hale because she’s the first female Law Lord and because of her wonderful judgments.
“Within weeks I received a photograph and a lovely handwritten letter from Lady Hale wishing me all the best with my career.
“The picture now sits above my desk along with a photo of Leo and Will, obviously.”