Belfast Telegraph

London fire: Our high-rise life, by residents of Belfast's Divis tower

By Allan Preston

The Divis Tower on the Falls Road is one of the tallest buildings in Belfast, standing at 200 feet with 19 floors.

Yesterday residents spoke of their shock over the devastating fire in London's Grenfell Tower, which has so far claimed the lives of 12 people. They also reflected on life in a high-rise apartment.

During the Troubles Divis Tower was in an area notorious for civil strife and IRA activity. In response, the top two levels were taken over as an observation post by the British Army, accessible only by helicopter.

Retired social worker Phil McCullough (70) moved into Divis 10 years ago and lives on the 12th floor. When the flats were first built in the 1960s, however, he campaigned to have them demolished.

"It's a good place to live in, it's like a vertical street," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"In 1968, when the flats first opened, it was packed full of families with two or three kids in a one bedroom flat. It was a crazy place to live at that time.

"I remember as a younger lad standing out here with placards demanding that the likes of these buildings was demolished because they weren't suitable housing for families.

"It was pandemonium, people were throwing washing machines out the window, kids going crazy in the corridors because there was nothing to do. It wasn't supervised like it is now.

"I protested because I felt what they were doing was building a brand new slum. Some people were happy to get out of the old slums, but they soon realised even the old slums were better. We were condemned by just about everyone for protesting, the local Catholic church in particular accused us of being communists. But we weren't, we were just concerned people who didn't want this type of housing for the ordinary good folk in our area."

Divis Tower was originally surrounded by a ring of maisonette buildings, which were torn down towards the end of the 1960s.

"Eventually I decided to stay here because it became a good place, there's a nice atmosphere, especially in the summer. The locals will tidy up the communal garden and hold get-togethers," he added.

Mr McCullough said he was deeply shocked by the fire in London and would welcome a practice exercise from the Fire Service to rehearse a rescue from the top floors.

Gabriel Murray (62) worked as a picture framer in Lisburn before retiring. During the Troubles he lived on the 17th floor beneath the Army, before moving down to the third floor.

"The Army used to be in the floor above me and one time a bomb even went off in the tower block," he said.

"Living 17 floors up was all right, but you knew about it when there was gale force winds. The good thing about here is the security. We have someone on the desk with an intercom and they can ring up to let us know if there's any problems.

"I nearly died when I saw the news this morning. It made you think of fire safety here and in other tower blocks."

Frank Hutchinson (55) works as a concierge in Divis, and lives on the 18th floor.

"The most horrific thing about the story in London was that there was no smoke alarms, that beggars belief. If they were cutting corners to save expenses, I just don't know what to say," he said.

On life on the 18th floor, he said: "I absolutely love living that high up. If it was three times that height I would still love to live there.

"The view is spectacular, my flat faces east and I can see Stormont Castle and Scrabo Tower on the Ards Peninsula."

He said a stigma from the Troubles gives Divis an unfair reputation today.

"During the Troubles people couldn't wait to get out of it, but now there's actually a two-year waiting list to get into the building. The flat that I live in used to be an Army observation post for 42 years. They moved out in 2005 when the peace process kicked in and they renovated the two top floors into brand spanking new flats."

Stephen (48) has lived in Divis for 10 years, first on the 17th floor and then second floor.

Regarding the London fire, he said: "It brings it home when you live in a tower block, I'm really surprised at the severity of the fire in London.

"Safety is our main issue here. A resident was murdered here in November last year (James Hughes was found dead in his 14th floor apartment).

"We've camera systems in place now but on my floor there's a guy who's had several run-ins, slashed tyres. Mental health care is letting these people down in my opinion, and the Housing Executive just puts these people here."

One resident of 10 years, aged 66, who preferred to stay anonymous, said he felt reassured "to a certain point" that the Housing Executive would be performing extra safety checks this week.

"The reality is you just don't know till there's actually a fire. You would still be frightened of something happening," he said.

Asked if he felt Divis had an unfair reputation, he said: "Yes. Divis is a strong community, the media need to come in and get to know the people here. High rise flats are usually built in areas of deprivation. But people in Divis have a good residents' association who stand up for housing equality, that's what you need. We certainly don't let people run us down, this area has a bad name but there's more good people than there is bad people."

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