Belfast Telegraph

Man rescues parents from house set ablaze by raging storms in Northern Ireland

By Claire Graham and Adrian Rutherford

James Coulter (51) led his mother Peggy (77) and father James (85) to safety after high winds caused an electricity line to topple and smash into their home on Thursday night.

The Co Down village of Mayobridge was lit up by the flames tearing through the roof of the home.

James told the Belfast Telegraph: "All I could see was smoke and the only light was coming from the flames which were getting bigger and more severe.

"All I could think of was I need to get my mother and father out. Upstairs in the bedrooms, the ceilings were coming down, crashing down and all I could see was fire, these massive flames in the roof space.

"I don't know how long we will be out for. But I can just say I'm relieved the worst didn't happen and we are all still here."

It was just one tale of misery across Northern Ireland as 75mph winds battered the province, leaving thousands without power, shutting roads and hitting air and ferry services.

A severe weather warning remained in place for most of yesterday after a night of chaos which saw trees felled and powerlines severely damaged.

Thousands of homes were left without power at various stages as heavy rain and gale-force gusts swept across southern and eastern counties, wreaking havoc. The highest winds, around 74mph, were recorded around 10pm on Thursday in the Armagh area.

By yesterday afternoon power had been restored to 30,000 homes, but Northern Ireland Electricity said 3,000 more were still without supply. And NIE warned that some customers may be left without power overnight because of the extent of the damage.

Counties Down, Armagh and Antrim were the worst affected areas, with emergency crews drafted in from Tyrone and Fermanagh to help deal with the backlog.

Heavy plant machinery was mobilised to replace broken poles and clear downed trees as NIE staff worked around the clock to restore power.

Julia Carson, from NIE, said: "Engineers and emergency crews are being aided by tree maintenance teams, who are clearing fallen trees and branches.

"The damage to the network has been significant in parts of counties Down, Antrim and Armagh, and we are continuing repair over 300 incidents of damage to the network in these areas."

Falling trees led to road closures right across the province, including Newry, Dungannon, Omagh, Magherafelt, Newtownards, Downpatrick, Portadown and Fermanagh.

At one stage the west-bound lane of the M1 motorway was closed at Junction 12 because of a fallen tree.

The strong wind had largely subsided yesterday, albeit blustery showers, heavy at times, continued to cause problems.

In Newry, Canal Street and part of Merchant's Quay were closed to vehicles and pedestrians yesterday afternoon due to falling debris from buildings in the area.

Clifton Street in Belfast was also closed because of an unsecured building.

The disruption spread to air and ferry services.

Yesterday's 7.30am P&O crossings from Larne to Cairnryan in both directions were cancelled, as was Stena's 10.30am sailing from Belfast to Liverpool.

All of yesterday's crossings between Rathlin Island and Ballycastle were cancelled too.

Some flights were diverted from Belfast City to Belfast International Airport on Thursday night.

By yesterday afternoon most flights at Belfast International were running on schedule.

Around 70,000 homes were left without power south of the border, leading the Irish Meteorological Service to issue a Red Alert status, urging people to take action to protect themselves and property.

A crash on the roof, then every electric socket burst into flames as bulbs exploded

All that is left of James Coulter's home is a burnt out roofless shell. The Mayobridge man stood staring in disbelief at the wreckage where he and his elderly parents narrowly escaped death during the Boxing Night storm.

With his hood up on the cold street in the rural village, pain etched across his face and eyes pink with smoke damage, the 51-year-old told of his horror after he was forced into saving the lives of his mother and father, leading them to safety from their house after it burst into flames.

The place he once called his childhood home is now a building full of horrifying memories.

It was just before 10pm on Boxing Day when an electricity pylon crashed through the terraced roof amid gusts of wind reaching 70mph.

The storm which tore through Northern Ireland brought left devastation in its wake.

As it brought down the electric generator at the rear of the property, flames ripped through the home.

With his mother and father headed to bed after two days of festive family celebrations, three generations enjoying Christmas together, James settled down to watch television.

Within seconds of a huge crash on the roof, every socket in the home burst into flames and lightbulbs exploded into fire around the living room decorated for Christmas.

As the flames got bigger and the traumatic scenes began to unfold, James said his only thoughts were to get his mum Peggy (77) and dad James (85) out alive.

"Police were banging on the door and shouting through the windows for us to get out," he said. "All I could see was smoke and the only light was coming from the flames which were getting bigger and more severe.

"All I could think of was I need to get my mother and father out.

"I got my mum out first as she was coming down the stairs from bed, then I got my dad who was already in bed. Then I was the only one left in the burning building.

"Upstairs in the bedrooms, the ceilings were coming down, crashing down and all I could see was fire, these massive flames in the roof space.

"That's our family home where we have lived since 1961 – yes it's devastating to see your home go up in flames but I am just so glad we all got out safe."

Blinded by smoke, surrounded by darkness lit only by deadly flames, James choked and spluttered through the danger to make sure his parents were safe.

"It was horrific and it was traumatic," he said.

"But I can't bear to think of what could have happened.

"I don't know how long we will be out for. I've no idea how we will get things back on track after this. But I can just say I'm relieved the worst didn't happen and we are all still here."

The three were taken to Daisy Hill hospital where they were checked for smoke inhalation.

Neighbour James Gallagher said it was a traumatic scene.

"I only live a few houses along down from the Coulters," he said.

"The roof on fire was just something else. Sparks were flying off the electricity pylon and bouncing down the street. So we were evacuated for around an hour for our own safety until emergency services brought it under control.

"It's hard to believe it's happened here, on our doorstep. But what's important is that no-one was seriously injured."

One resident said the burning roof looked like a fireball: "I live two and a half miles away and could still see the blaze.

"It just looked like a fireball in the sky. I thought lightning had struck."

Yesterday, as the realisation of the magnitude of the problems still to be faced, insurance companies to phone and a sleepless terrifying night, James asked a neighbour if he would mind parking his car in his driveway.

He holds up the piece of metal from his car key – as the electronic opener melted away in the blaze.

His brother Thomas, who provided beds for the family to sleep on Thursday, said the support from friends and the community had been overwhelming.

"Mum and dad are obviously badly shaken but the phone hasn't stopped ringing to see if they are all right," he said.

"Everyone has been asking if they can help, to pass on their love and you know that means a lot in a time like this."

Thomas Coulter was picking up remains from the house which hadn't been scorched, requested by his mum.

Among the items bundled in his arms were Christmas cards still unsent, a reminder of the special time of year now tainted with a life-threatening ordeal.

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